Rubicon: A Throwback to 1970s Conspiracy Thrillers
Initial advertisements for Rubicon include the tagline, “Not every conspiracy is a theory,” a statement that no doubt resonates with the generation that experienced such traumatic historical events as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the Watergate scandal. Conspiracy theories abounded during the 1970s, a time period when such paranoia was justified. The Twenty First Century, meanwhile, is a more grounded time period and the emergence of the World Wide Web as an outlet for news and information has certainly limited the potential for conspiracies and cover ups. In addition, the role of the media to simply report the news changed after Watergate when two unknown journalists working for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in effect brought down the Presidency of Richard Nixon through their dogged effort to unravel the truth about the break in. Suffice it to say that it is a lot harder now to keep a secret than it was during the 1970s.
Not that conspiracies have fallen to the wayside in Hollywood. The FOX drama 24 evolved over its eight seasons from an intense thriller following CTU Agent Jack Bauer as he faced the twenty-four hour pressure cooker of thwarting terrorist attacks to a series where the enemy more often than not emerged as members within the government intent on shaping their own foreign and domestic policies. Even recent film entries into the conspiracy genre, such as the Will Smith action flick Enemy of the State and the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts Conspiracy Theory, touched on the prospect of government elements pulling the strings behind the scenes in order to strong arm their own agendas. All of the above, however, were of the action variety form of entertainment—with plenty of bullets, dead bodies and explosions that often overshadowed the plot and cautionary tale of the narrative.
Conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, in contrast, relied more on the tension and intellectual nature of the storylines. The Conversation and All the President’s Men, for instance, were not popcorn fare but films designed to make the audience think about the ramifications of issues ranging from the invasion of privacy to the perils of presidential power. Even The Parallax View, which features a number of barroom brawls and high speed car chases during its first half, eventually evolves into a thought provoking tale on psychological manipulation, political assassination and the ability to cover up the truth by eliminating the facts from the equation. The same ultimately holds true for Rubicon.
The series starts with intelligence analyst Will Travers (James Badge Dale) discovering connecting clues in multiple crossword puzzles spread across several major newspapers. “Our three branches of government are here—legislative, executive, judicial,” he tells his boss, David Hadas. The problem is that there’s a fourth branch alluded to in the puzzles as well. “What or who does that fourth leaf represent?” Travers continues. “And what’s the message?” Hadas tells him that it means nothing, but is then killed the next morning in a freak train accident.
Three Days of the Condor has a similar opening. Instead of crossword puzzles, however, analyst Joe Turner discovers clues in an obscure spy novel. Upon reporting his findings to his superiors, Turner is likewise told his deductions are meaningless but his fellow team members are systematically murdered afterwards. Turner survives the massacre by literally being “out to lunch,” only to then find himself on the run when he realizes that his findings point to a “secret CIA” within the actual clandestine organization.
All the President’s Men, meanwhile, details Woodward and Bernstein’s real life investigation into the Watergate burglary. Although it doesn’t lead to the discovery of a “secret government” within the Nixon administration, it does reveal layers of corruption and cover ups in the White House nonetheless. Despite containing a well known historical narrative that ends with Nixon’s resignation, director Alan J. Pakula was still able to create a riveting film by concentrating on the “connect the dots” approach of the two Washington Post journalists, the potential danger to their physical well being and the secretive antics of mysterious government mole Deep Throat.
Rubicon obviously mirrors the styles of both Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. Will Travers, for instance, eventually deduces that David Hadas was murdered and that the crossword puzzle clues are somehow relevant. His subsequent under the radar investigation is thus another “connect the dots” effort which likewise puts Travers’ life in danger. While it was merely hinted that Nixon and his cohorts were bugging Woodward and Bernstein, however, there are no doubts in Rubicon as multiple listening devices are discovered by Travers in both his apartment and office.
The intelligence analyst also has his own version of Deep Throat in new boss Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard). “I’ll confirm what you get, try to keep you on the right track,” the original Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men. “But that’s all.” Although it is apparent that Ingram knows a great deal more about the conspiracy at the heart of Travers’s investigation, he is equally reluctant to reveal too much. “I’m not going to be participating in this directly,” Ingram informs Travers. “I’m too high profile. But I can be helpful. When I’m able, I’ll point you in the right direction.”
Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, as well as other conspiracy films of the 1970s, were a direct byproduct of their era. The upheaval of the 1960s—which included numerous high-profile assassinations—and the Watergate scandal of the early 70s cast a cloud of paranoia over the decade which many films of the time period reflected. Rubicon likewise draws inspiration for its narrative from the contemporary mood of the nation as well as the defining moment of this young century, 9/11. Will Travers, for instance, was supposed to meet his wife and son on the top of the World Trade Center on that fateful day but arrived late.
While the mention of 9/11 is only used to add depth and understanding to the character of Will Travers, as opposed to having a direct impact on the main plot of Rubicon, its footprints are still evident as terrorist group al-Quaida is the obvious focus of the intelligence work that Travers and his team conduct. Not only does Rubicon thus contain the major storyline of a conspiracy surrounding the death of David Hadas but a secondary narrative involving an international “person of interest” with ties to al-Quaida. In addition, the series is also peppered with dialogue that details the changing nature of national security in the Twenty First Century.
“Our enemies, they used to be hierarchical,” Travers explains in one episode. “You could identify a controller and neutralize it. Now it’s a web, a self organized network, a collection of hubs that form a much larger whole that wasn’t predetermined and remains ungoverned.”
“God, I miss the Cold War,” Kale Ingram simply responds.
Similar to its AMC counterpart Mad Men, the storylines of Rubicon evolve at their own slow, deliberate pace but still draw the viewer into the narrative nonetheless. In this sense, the series resembles another film of the 1970s, The Conversation. Most famous for being the movie that Francis Ford Coppola made in between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the story of a high tech wiretapper who becomes involved in a potential murder is more of a character study than straight-up action thriller. With its own carefully crafted characters like Will Travers, Kale Ingram and numerous other intelligence analysts working at the clandestine government facility, the same holds true for Rubicon.
Like The Conversation, Rubicon might not make its viewers reach for a bowl of popcorn, but it does its best to both engage the audience and make one think in the process. During an era that often travels at a breakneck speed, the AMC drama is a welcome throwback to a different time period that might not be so different after all.
Anthony Letizia (September 13, 2010)