Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfield
Directed by Sydney Pollack
The CIA is one of the most evil and chaotic institutions in the United States. The formation of the CIA in the wake of World War II amounts to a political coup by the business class. Anticommunist sentiments were running high in the Truman administration in the wake of the war. The Soviets were gaining ground in a Europe attempting to heal from fascist destruction. However, the United States ushered many “useful” Nazis across the Atlantic to help build a new world order that put America at the top of the heap. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the CIA’s precursor, scheming to undermine any communist growth in the world. The OSS would eventually hire a group of wealthy and educated white men who saw this as an opportunity to turn the world into their playground, become the secret agents they’d read about in a growing & popular genre of literature at the time, and for some (the true believers) they operated with religious fervor to destroy communism. These agents turned global politics into a deadly game they played against people trying to survive and make their nations better and amongst each other, games within games.
Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA analyst based out of New York City. His department examines printed media from around the world, searching for coded messages within the texts. Turner has discovered a cheap paperback thriller with an incoherent plot that has been translated into many languages. The book’s sales don’t point to that many copies making sense, so Turner suspects it’s a code between foreign agents. Turner goes to grab lunch for the office one afternoon only to return and find his colleagues murdered. Turner goes on the run, now sure his discovery came to the attention of the wrong people. He also quickly learns he can trust no one after contacting his department head, only to be lured into a trap. Turner encounters a woman, Kathy (Faye Dunaway), who he kidnaps so he can hide in her apartment. Playing things cautiously, our protagonist plays cat and mouse with the people who want him dead while trying to get to the bottom of the message hidden in the book. He eventually discovers something that sends him reeling, understanding that the CIA wants him dead.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, there was a political thriller genre that experienced quite a bit of popularity. It saw its roots in the espionage-oriented films of Alfred Hitchcock, but its final form in Three Days of the Condor. The structure presented in this movie has been played off so many times in both dramas and action comedies over the years, so if this movie feels familiar while watching it, that’s why. It’s a genuinely tense picture that builds a sense of paranoia so that we end up wild-eyed and on edge like Turner. But what’s even stranger is that as they were shooting the film, as Watergate and an avalanche of other government skeletons were coming to light, big revelations about the CIA came out.
The film’s premise is centered around the CIA destabilizing foreign regimes to get control of vital oil fields. Pollack and his collaborators felt this was a big stretch, and then wouldn’t you know it…it turned out the CIA was destabilizing foreign regimes and killing people to get control of oil fields. They were all convinced while doing rewrites on the script that, while based on some anecdotes, it was mainly their imaginations creating a vast conspiracy. That conspiracy was real. These revelations were referred to as the “Family Jewels,” a series of reports that detailed illegal CIA activities, written up by the Agency itself but thought to be secured until a series of extensive Congressional investigations.
People had been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. U.S. citizens were wiretapped and surveilled. Former employees of the CIA were heavily targeted by the Agency. Mail was intercepted and opened. The worst of it all was Project MKULTRA. This operation focused on developing methods to psychologically manipulate potential enemies. To do this, patients at mental health facilities, the homeless, and other marginalized groups were turned into guinea pigs. They were injected with and fed high doses of psychoactive drugs and other chemicals while subjecting them to practices like electroshock, sensory deprivation, long-term isolation, and verbal/physical abuse. Many of these practices are still active today in foreign “black sites” where foreign citizens are abducted and tortured due to extremely flimsy suspicions. The breadth of horror caused by the CIA is so vast and still so hidden we’ll never really know the full extent. 80 institutions, from colleges/universities to hospitals to pharmaceutical companies, were complicit in carrying out MKULTRA. Based on what we know, I don’t think it would be a stretch to call the CIA the most evil organization ever formed in the United States. Those victims who have been identified and didn’t die immediately from the experimentation have clearly had their ability to be functional members of society obliterated. They live with roiling torment in their minds, unable to escape what was done to them.
So why does the CIA still exist today if all these things were put out in the open about them? Several Congressional committees were formed to “investigate,” and President Ford said he encouraged bringing things to light. But even leadership in the CIA would say they wanted transparency and get rid of these “bad apples” to improve the Agency. The nihilistic disillusionment sweeping through America at the time caused people to become apathetic and not care. The chaos of everyday life increased, as it still does today, so while the information is out there, people are too tired from work and overstimulated by ceaseless media that the CIA gets away with it. They altered their methods behind the scenes and benefitted from a world that is harder and harder to understand.
At the end of Three Days of the Condor, Turner has all the evidence he needs and has turned it over to the New York Times, America’s “paper of record.” He tells this to a CIA spook as a way to prove it doesn’t matter if they kill Turner or not; the information will be shared. The agent tells Turner he’s going to be a very lonely man, speaking to such a large portion of the establishment not wanting to touch Turner due to the controversy. Turner responds defiantly, “They’ll print it.” The agent, smirking, calls out, “How do you know?” And the credits roll. This ending encapsulates the battle to reveal evil in our society. Those in power have created systems they are so confident in that they do not fear the media. Either the press will hide the truth, or it will be placed in a part of the paper they have complete confidence no one will read. This is why big news often drops on Friday afternoons; people are geared up for the weekend and paying the slightest attention, if any, at that time. In America, endless streams of entertainment pull us away from reality, ensconce us in warm, comfortable cocoons, and in this way, evil people triumph while we sleep.