A regional reporter (Warren Beatty) stumbles on not so much a plot as an institutionalized corporate conspiracy of assassination. The closer Beatty gets to the source, the more he realizes that what he initially deemed ludicrous is in fact a chilling reality.
Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller was probably more relevant upon its release. With the shooting of JFK in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65, RFK and MLK in ’68, George Wallace in ’72 (a mere 2 years before the picture’s release), political assassination was preeminent in the mind of your average filmgoer. And no one does paranoia quite a well as Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent).
The picture is creepy and certainly makes the viewer feel anxious,. In particular, the movie potential assassins are required to watch in order to gauge their suitability/brainwash them is in and of itself overpowering.
But the film suffers from two significant handicaps. First, the Beatty character is a cypher. He is dogged and cynical, but he is invested with no backstory, motive or any other compelling feature. Given how things turn out, this may be part of the message, but it makes for some stifled yawns as we travel his route to dawning. Second, the plot is a mess. Sure, I fully understand an assassination corporation maybe knocking off a true existential political threat once a decade. The Parallax Corporation, however, kills two United States senators and attempts to kill a third, in the space of three years, and even when they have done the good work of pinning it on a brainwashed loner stooge (the corporation’s m.o.), they threaten their entire operation by wiping out potential witnesses after the deed. I’m not talking one or two witnesses. After the film’s opening a scene (a gripping assassination on top of Seattle’s Space Needle), nine “witnesses” (it’s not clear they actually see anything) are taken out, a number extraordinary enough that Beatty is drawn in to dig deeper. In the final assassination, a sniper takes down a senator in front of an entire marching band. That is going to be one helluva cleanup.
This is no way to run a railroad.