Tom Cruise in Valkyrie (Image: Rex Features)

    The best films about coups d’état

    6 October 2020

    It is ironic that a nation that has never experienced a coup d’état should be so obsessed with the idea of conspiracy.

    Gore Vidal (Sex, Death, and Money, 1968)

    With President Donald Trump’s recent pronouncement on whether he will accept a peaceful transfer of power after November’s election (if he loses), what better time to explore the coup – and attempted coup in the movies.

    As always, the focus will be on more recent pictures, but it’s worth remembering that the subject has long been a popular one, with a storied history of excellent movies, including JFK (1991), Mishima (1985), Danton (1983), Missing (1982), The Year of Living Dangerously (also 1982),The Parallax View (1974), The Day of the Jackal (1973), Z (1969), Burn! (1969), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

    My selection covers a broad assortment of ten mainly fact-based titles – and you may notice that I’ve consciously avoided the slew of YA sci-fi franchises such as The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner movies, which (if you squint hard enough) all concern the overthrow of established orders.

    In order of release:

    New Order (2020)

    This Mexican-French art-house thriller recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

    Michel Franco’s (Chronic) movie sees a wealthy middle-class wedding in Mexico disrupted (to put it mildly) by a violent uprising from the exploited masses.

    With some reviewers referencing Pasolini’s gruelling Salo (1975) as a possible influence, you can pretty much guarantee New Order is not going to be an easy watch.

    If you enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) you’re in for a treat.

    The Colony (2015) – Amazon Prime

    One of many movies that use General Pinochet’s bloodthirsty 1973 Chilean military coup as a backdrop, The Colony explores the notorious quasi-Nazi ‘Colonia Dignidad ‘cult in the country, which was also used as a prison/torture camp for dissidents.

    The colony’s other activities included child sexual abuse and the stockpiling of weaponry in secret bunkers. Josef Mengele was said to have conducted human experiments at the compound.

    In the picture Emma Watson plays Lena, a young woman who joins Colonia Dignidad to rescue her abducted boyfriend Daniel (Daniel Brühl). The late Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) is Paul Schäfer, the leader and abuser-in-chief of the cult.

    Allende en su Laberinto (Allende in his Labyrinth, 2014)

    This Spanish language movie depicts the seven hours of the life of Chilean President Salvador Allende and his personal guard during Pinochet’s siege of the Palace of La Moneda.

    Again, not the easiest of watches, although we don’t actually get to see how the socialist would-be reformer Allende met his end, which in the circumstances is a small mercy.

    The movie uses Allende’s final radio speech from the presidential palace, which adds to the poignancy.

    Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Disney+

    Thankfully, something lighter, in this enjoyable Marvel picture that deliberately seeks to capture the atmosphere of classic 1970s conspiracy movies such as The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975)

    Hence the inspired casting of Condor’s Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, secret head of the fascistic Hydra organisation who intends to remove all their enemies in one fell swoop and seize power.

    To his credit, Redford really puts his all into the part, rather than slum it, as some big-name stars are wont to do in comic book movies.

    White House Down (2013) – Amazon Prime

    Director Roland (Independence Day) Emmerich had the misfortune to see his picture pipped at the post by the thematically remarkably similar but more financially successful (vs budget) Gerard Butler actioner Olympus Has Fallen.

    Both have their pleasures as fairly dumb time-fillers, and White House Down also boasts an internal coup element, as House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) is revealed to be behind the plot to off President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx).

    Lucky that Channing Tatum’s Capitol Police Officer John Cale (no relation to The Velvet Underground viola player) happens to be around to team up with the President and help save the day.

    Valkyrie (2008) – Netflix

    The 20th July 1944 Plot by German Army officers to assassinate Hitler and end the war has long featured as an element in WWII movies (including Night of the Generals and The Desert Fox), but Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie was the first big budget Hollywood take on the event itself.

    In a way, it’s easy to see why no one tried before; the plot failed so we know the ending – and there may still be some residual feeling that the conspirators may have made their move only because they wanted to avoid joining Hitler in total defeat.

    Nonetheless there’s satisfaction to be had in the handsomely mounted picture, with an embarrassment of riches in terms of British acting talent (including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kevin McNally, Tom Hollander and Tom Wilkinson), which unfortunately does have the effect of making star Tom Cruise (as lead plotter Count von Stauffenberg) stand out like a sore thumb, at least In terms of his US accent.

    The Good Shepherd (2006)

    Robert De Niro directed and acted in this unfairly neglected sprawling epic about the genesis and early activities of the CIA, which include the frequent successful foreign coups (with the notable exception of the Bay of Pigs in 1961) instigated by the agency

    A complex story of dubious morality, divided loyalties, and the Old Boy Network of exclusive secret societies such as Skull and Bones, De Niro’s picture is ripe for re-evaluation.

    The actor put together a superb (albeit male-dominated) cast, including Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Joe Pesci and John Turturro.

    The Black Pimpernel (2007)

    We return to the tragic events of Chile in 1973 with this more uplifting true-life picture.

    In a reversal of his role in The Colony, Michael Nyqvist plays Harald Edelstam, Swedish ambassador to Chile.

    After Pinochet’s coup Edelstram saved 1,300 people from almost certain death/torture by sheltering them in the Swedish embassy and eventually giving the group refuge in his native land.

    Coup! (2006)

    Satirist John Fortune’s BBC serio-comic drama starred Jared Harris (Chernobyl) as mercenary Simon Mann, who, with his Executive Outcomes colleagues, was apparently behind a coup to overthrow the president of the oil-rich West African state Equatorial Guinea. Needless to say, it didn’t go according to plan.

    Some will recall the arrest of Mark Thatcher (played by Robert Bathurst) in connection with his alleged involvement with the plot, which he denied.

    The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – Amazon Rent/Buy

    Jonathan Demme’s largely successful remake of the John Frankenheimer classic of the same name benefits from its terrific casting.

    Denzel Washington stars as hero Major Bennett Marco, with Liev Schreiber as Congressman Raymond Prentiss Shaw, the ‘candidate’ of the title, and Meryl Streep as his manipulative (and apparently incestuous) mother Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, standing in for the original trio of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.

    The action has been updated from the Korean to the First Gulf War, with evil private equity firm Manchurian Global taking the place of the Communist China and Russia as bad guys, intent on placing their brainwashed puppet (Schreiber) in the White House.