Fans of the 1964 film classic Seven Days in May who might have seen it this year would have had something of a reality jolt since the seven days portrayed in the movie (Monday, May 12th to Sunday, May 18th) corresponded precisely with the current calendar.
I’ve long been a fan of John Frankenheimer films. I think he did his best work in black and white in the 1960s (The Manchurian Candidate; Seconds). This one had a great screenplay by the legendary Rod Serling based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. I’m always a bit frustrated by the lack of accuracy in the set for the Oval Office, however. They have people popping in and out of the door that adjoins the president’s private study and washrooms. This was the suite of rooms made famous by the secret dalliances involving President Bill Clinton and a certain young lady in an infamous blue dress. In real life, visitors enter the Oval Office by the north-east door, which is where the president’s secretary and other staff work. It’s a forgivable oversight in an otherwise spellbinding picture with a stellar cast.
The movie was a fictional depiction of events involving a coup against the government of the United States by its top military, led by Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kirk Douglas was superb in his role as Col. “Jiggs” Casey, the thankless whistleblower. Edmond O’Brien and Martin Balsam play their parts to perfection. There’s even a brief and uncredited appearance by John Houseman as a flagship U.S. admiral with an English accent. Ava Gardner plays the jilted woman, but I never thought her performance was terribly convincing.
The plot is implausible, of course. But then, when you consider what has happened since it was made: a president assassinated (most people still think it was part of a larger conspiracy); Watergate and a president who subverted the constitution; an unpopular war in Iraq and a president who has championed the greatest folly in American foreign policy history, you have to concede that reality is sometimes stranger than fiction.
One more interesting note. In the movie, President Jordan Lyman, played by that wonderful actor Fredric March, is laboring under a 29 percent job approval rating, according to a fictional Gallup Poll. It has the president and his staff in a tizzy. Again, reality can be more surprising than art. This May, a CNN poll reported that 71 percent of the American public disapproved of how George W. Bush (the real president) was handling his job. No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in the history of polling.
President Lyman can now rest easy in his grave knowing that someone has finally made him look more popular.
I was always struck by the speech the fictional president gave at the end of the movie. More than forty years later, some might find resonance in the words that seem to speak to certain political issues today and the yearning by many to turn the page and embrace a different approach to articulating and presenting America’s role in the world. Don’t be surprised if you see similar ideas in a speech by Senator Barack Obama one day. He has the best team of speechwriters in decades of presidential politics, and quite possibly since President Kennedy’s Camelot days with Theodore Sorensen. The movie ends with these words:
There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.