The opening images of Seven Days in May could have easily been pulled out of the headlines. A silent protest continues outside the White House gates with hosts of signs decrying the incumbent president or at the very least the state of his America. We don’t quite know his egregious act although it’s made evident soon enough.
The scene at hand rapidly escalates to violence. There’s an immersive cinema-verite quality to the mob that breaks out between rival protesters. It instigates the film’s overt sense of technical style even if it’s not always straight to the point.
What becomes imperative to John Frankenheimer’s movie is how this showmanship frames the performances at its core because the movie is driven by its robust melange of characters. Fredric March is president Jordan Lyman. He’s getting middling reviews for headlining a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. This includes backlash from his highest-ranking military officials, and they’re not going to sit around while he lets America get annihilated.
It might seem like a slightly peculiar (if not entirely unfounded) reaction, seeing as in real life so many people would soon call for peace. Except in this world, the Cold War is literally reversed; now they have peace, and the outcome still remains the same. Everyone’s suspicious of what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain. If it’s not evident already, Seven Days in May effectively becomes an off-shoot of your typical Cold War doomsday drama.
Somehow it seems fitting Rod Serling adapted the script from the titular novel because this is a story planted in an inconspicuous and generally subtle near-future. It is its own Twilight Zone in that the logic feels slightly tweaked from what contemporary America was familiar with. At any rate, it’s concerned with an entirely different outcome than President Kennedy was currently faced with. What makes it truly startling is how much of a hop, skip, and a jump it feels from reality.
While it’s unfeasible to totally encapsulate public discourse during the early 1960s of the Kennedy administration, it’s often true movies act as an echo chamber of the times, reverberating the current issues in fundamentally different ways. I cannot speak to the anxieties Seven Days in May explicitly illustrates. But there are tinges of very real conditions, be it public protests and national marches (with the civil rights movement) and certainly the ongoing frozen-over politics of The Cold War.
Foremost among the detractors is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who adamantly believes nuclear disarmament is a dubious peace — a sign of America’s weakness as they roll over and cave to Soviet interests — leaving the nation vulnerable. And it’s not an isolated opinion with close associates including Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) sharing his line of thinking.
However, even their own private allegiances dictate drastically different courses of action. There would not be a movie if “Jiggs” did not uncover General Scott’s covert operations. Namely, a garrison of men training at an undisclosed facility in El Paso. It’s the first of several red flags.
The Colonel immediately brings a line of communication straight to the top triggering mistrust and paranoia as the inner circle of the president is overtaken with consternation. Although he seems admittedly quick to sound the alarm, it is indicative of the times. Especially because their fears of a military plot to take over the government seem overwhelmingly well-founded. Such a coup d’etat on the oval office almost feels unthinkable in the modern age of America; maybe this fits a more Twilight Zone sense of our government structures.
Regardless, Lyman heeds the warning and sends one of his closest allies, old southern boy, Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), to check out El Paso. Another oval office insider (Martin Basalm) ends up tracking down the one standout from the conspiracy — an admiral currently based out of Spain — who gives a signed statement of foreknowledge. Meanwhile, The Colonel is asked to continue in the uncomfortable position of an informer. The President must bide his time until he can back up the claims, lest he be seen as a raving madman by the general public.
While Lancaster might have the more high-profile post, it is Douglas who feels like the sinews holding the movie together, and rightfully so, because he was one of the major forces behind the film’s production. To his credit, it shows his ability to play a more restrained part — close to the vest — which still remains deeply impactful.
His scenes with Ava Gardner feel like a minor side note to this covert conspiracy of international importance, and yet it’s a tribute to both of them; it feels real and devastating in its own right. Their shared context means something.
Given the era, it’s hard not to consider the likes of Advise & Consent and then the more nuclear-oriented dramas like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. And of course, John Frankenheimer had a well-documented pedigree with the political thriller from one of the most high-profile contenders, The Manchurian Candidate, and the criminally overlooked Seconds a few years down the road.
If we were to take his loose trilogy and compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s trifecta of thrillers from the 1970s, we can somewhat trace the evolution of the genre from one decade to the next.
As Lyman notes, the electorate is looking to elect a personal God for the duration, whether a McCarthy or a General Walker. They clamor for such a person to assuage their fears. The enemy is not other men but the nuclear age. We suspect infiltration and that the enemy is trying to blow us off this rock. Not until later would our own government be implicated, and then big business and our own systems be seen as a source of the problems.
Some of the best scenes take place in the privacy of the oval office because we sense the tension provided by the stakes. However, the whole drama is brought down to a manageable scale that can be quantified and understood through human relationships.
The intimate confrontation between March and Lancaster is probably a pinnacle of the storytelling, far more impactful in fact, than watching a full-scale conflict play out. Instead, it’s the whole movie hinging on one showdown between two incomparable forces, and what a showcase it is.
What makes the film smoke with legitimacy is how both men suggest, in their heart of hearts, that they are right and justified in what they are doing. And that’s what the great actors can do. Lancaster, in particular, is easy enough to cast as the power-hungry, possibly sleazy villain with a Napoleonic complex. But Lancaster’s ferocity is only matched by his steely delivery. There’s never a suggestion he is phoning in those lines of dialogue. They come off real and true and unflinching.
In the eleventh hour, there’s a sigh of relief and an equally perturbing sense of unease. We conveniently never find out if the peace treaties were a ploy by the Soviets. All we’ve done is live to fight another day. Tomorrow could signal oblivion. For this early in the decade, it feels surprisingly downbeat signifying the times certainly were a-changin’. The shift was inexorable.
*I wrote this review well before events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.