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!
The journalist in Frady senses something fishy, and he heads to Salmontail. He stops first at the local bar, where he gets in a brawl with the deputy sheriff. The sheriff apologizes to Frady—the deputy was his nephew—and tells him Tucker is long gone, but offers to take Frady to the scene of the fishing accident. They go the next day, and the friendly old sheriff pulls a gun on Frady. But journalist Joe is faster with his knife, and he slashes the sheriff’s face. They wrestle in the rushing water and Frady, far too dexterous for a true hack, gets away in the sheriff’s car. He repairs to the sheriff’s home and discovers a drawer full of sinister-seeming documents marked “personal inventory” and “Parallax Corporation.”
The deputy shows up and Frady speeds off, getting away again after a car chase that involves flying, spinning, dodging a log-bearing semi, and crashing into the canned-goods aisle of a grocery store. He makes his way home and heads to the newsroom, where his editor fumes about Frady’s appetite for perilous investigation. “The thought of covering that city council meeting was just too much for you, wasn’t it?” the editor chides.
Frady shows him the goods from Salmontail and makes a case for further investigation, but this editor tells him to knock it off: “I don’t care if your self-serving ambition gets you a paperback sale and a Pulitzer Prize, I’m not going to have anything more to do with it!”
Undeterred, Frady takes his documents to a psychology lab that performs tests on chimps. “Do you think the test could pick up potentially homicidal characteristics?” Frady asks a psychologist there. He also presses on with his efforts to find Tucker. He succeeds, but gets strip-searched, professionally emasculated—“stop acting like you’re on the New York Times, for Christ’s sake. You’re a third-rate journalist from Oregon or wherever the hell you’re from”—and is offered hush-money by Tucker.
But Frady is as incorruptible as he is unrelenting when it comes to pursuing truth. “Sorry Mr. Tucker, you’ve got information I need. Money doesn’t mean anything to me. This story is going to mean more to me than $10,000.” They go out on Tucker’s boat, and Tucker gives Frady some critical information—including the name of the mysterious second waiter! Then the boat blows up.
In addition to being persistent, Frady is also lucky, and he survives. The papers report him dead, though, and he scares his editor silly when he shows back up at the office. “Whoever is behind this is in the business of recruiting assassins,” Frady tells his editor. The editor believes him this time, and agrees with some reluctance not to call the Feds and to let Frady do his thing.
“What do you expect me to print?” the editor asks Frady.
“My obituary,” Frady says.
Frady goes undercover, to become a Parallax assassin. Having observed Ernie, a serial killer, fill out the Parallax “personal inventory” back at the psych lab, he aces the Parallax Corporation’s entrance exam. He’s invited to the corporation headquarters—which is gleaming, sinister, modern—where in the Division of Human Engineering he is treated to the movie’s famous, five-minute montage scene—a musically-scored series of increasingly jumbled images that reflect words like mother, country, god, enemy. It’s intended to brainwash recruits. (It’s worth noting that there is much in this film that is never fully explained.)
After all this, Frady is accepted into the assassin ring. He’s given an assignment and tries to learn more about the corporation and who’s behind it without killing anyone in the meantime. He sends tapes of his activities to his editor, who, wouldn’t you know, dies of a heart attack one evening while drinking a cup of coffee. The tapes disappear.
And so we’re down to Frady. He’s still on the case to uncover the truth about Parallax when we enter the movie’s final scene, which is set at an L.A. convention hall, outfitted with red, white, and blue tables and an unpolished high school band. Senator George Hammond, who rides in on a golf cart, comes to rehearse a speech he is set to give that night. Frady is in the rafters, having followed some Parallax gunmen up there. But they’ve set him up. The senator is assassinated by one of the Parallax men as he drives out of the auditorium; he slumps over as his golf cart plows into the patriotic tables. A member of the band—a pimply tuba player—spots Frady in the rafters. “I see him!” Frady sprints for the door, but is shot by one of the assassins.
Fade to black, and then again with the eerily lit oak panel of stone-faced men in suits. They conclude that Senator Hammond was killed by Joseph Frady. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy. This is an announcement gentleman. There will be no questions.”
In the end, the truth dies with Frady. No story is ever written. The sinister Parallax Corporation continues to operate in surprisingly conspicuous quarters, churning out assassins. All of Frady’s risk-taking and hard work seem not to have mattered—it’s an even bleaker picture, in terms of journalistic efficacy, than the existential crisis that grips the business today. Do we matter? Maybe not.
But Pakula’s message is not an indictment of the journalist, but of the machine and the power structures the poor hack is up against. Pakula made this film in what was something of a golden era of journalism, when people had far more faith in the press than in politicians and their official narratives. Be wary of the powerful. Be wary of the corporate. Be wary of worn-out editors who have gotten too comfortable in the newsroom.
And yet, sometimes the good guys lose. Whereas journalists are triumphant truth-tellers in All the President’s Men, in The Parallax View the journalist is a tragic hero on a lonely—and, as it happens, futile—quest for truth in a world that won’t allow it. Indeed, it was a reflection of the times. While much of the Watergate story had been unraveled on the front page of The Washington Post by the time The Parallax View was released, it wasn’t until later that summer, when Nixon resigned, that journalism ultimately prevailed.