It’s the Fourth of July in Seattle. We’re on the scene with Lee Carter, a young television reporter, who is reporting from the grounds of the Independence Day parade— hand on her hip, purse on her shoulder, dressed all in pink. Carter is earnest but smitten as she announces the arrival of Senator Charles Carroll, who rides in atop a horse-drawn carriage: “He really looks terrific. He’s the ideal father if you’re young enough, the ideal husband if you’re old enough. And I guess the ideal leader for our country if you’re any age,” gushes Carter.
Dashing senator and doting journalist alight to the top of the Space Needle, where Senator Carroll works the crowd and begins his welcome speech. But no sooner than he calls himself “too independent for my own good,” Carroll is shot twice. His body slumps, leaving a bloody streak on the observatory window. A melee ensues within the Space Needle and then atop it, when three men in suits go after the gunman, who is dressed as a waiter. They wrestle with him and he rolls off the needle, plunging to his death.
But wait! Cue the creepy music, and pan to the other waiter, the one who got away. Fade to black. Then, as the opening credits roll, a voice thunders from the darkness: “This is an announcement, not a press conference, therefore there will be no questions.” Eventually, we can make out an eerily lit, eagle-emblazoned oak panel and a row of stone-faced men in suits from which this voice thunders.
It is the conclusion of this committee that Senator Carroll was assassinated by Thomas Richard Linder. It is our further conclusion that he acted entirely alone…The committee wishes to emphasize there is no evidence of any wider conspiracy. No evidence whatsoever.
The voice then admonishes the press for “the irresponsible, exploitive speculation” they have conducted in reporting the senator’s death.
So begins The Parallax View, Alan Pakula’s 1974 conspiracy thriller—the second in his “Paranoid Trilogy”—that was released in a summer of Watergate headlines and in the wake of a decade of political assassinations. The movie’s tagline: “As American as Apple Pie.” While Pakula’s final film in the trilogy, All the President’s Men, may be the better known, both for its obvious import and its flattering presentation of journalists, The Parallax View is also, in its own way, a love letter to the profession, and particularly to the investigative, lone-wolf reporter.
When the movie picks up, it’s three years later and we encounter our second journalist—who is also the ex-boyfriend of the first—the hunky Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), a disaffected rogue of a newspaperman who works the drug-crime beat with what his editor calls “creative irresponsibility.” When we first meet Frady, he is fleeing the cops—the reason is never clear, but our sympathies are immediately with Frady—and finagles his way into a home by telling its owners his parrot is on their back porch. The homeowners let him in. Seconds later, the police follow and arrest Frady for a laundry list of minor offenses that include “malicious mischief.” Frady claims they are just after his sources.
His editor shows up at the station, “not amused,” and bails Frady out. They return to the newsroom, where Frady punches out his story, which his editor summarily spikes, reminding Frady that, “we’re in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.” The editor ends Frady’s series on community drug problems and tells him to come back the next day ready to write a “dull piece on the parks and recreation hearings.”
Frady’s ethics may be questionable, but throughout the movie, Pakula leaves us feeling the reporter’s methods are justified in the dirty world Frady is up against. But just as it appears that Frady’s journalism is about to take a turn for the boring and civic, his ex, Lee Carter, the pink-clad newswoman, comes knocking. She is jittery and Frady is annoyed—what is it this time?
“Someone is trying to kill me,” says a teary Carter, pulling out a three-year-old newspaper clipping—“Moments before assassination”—that shows four photos of the scene at the space needle before Carroll was shot. Carter claims six of the eighteen people in the photos have since died—in tragic accidents or, in one case, a heart attack at the age of forty. She produces another clip, this one reporting the death of one of the six in a fishing accident in a town called Salmontail, where Carroll’s former political aide, Austin Tucker, lives.
Frady thinks she’s crazy and sends her away. The next time we see Carter, she is in a morgue—cold. She had been driving on barbiturates!