A film adaptation of Charles McCarry's novel The Better Angels, this 1982 political satire on the connections between the media, governments and politically-motivated violence was a critical and audience flop until its uncanny resemblance to events post-9/11 brought it to public attention again.
Patrick Hale (Sean Connery) is a superstar reporter for World Television Network at a time when the news has become more about entertainment than reporting. While in the North African country of Hagreb to interview its ruler, King Awad, he discovers that Awad is about to buy two suitcase nukes for terrorist leader Rafeeq (Henry Silva) to use against America and Israel. US President Lockwood (George Grizzard) authorises the CIA to assassinate Awad which puts an end to the scheme, but the outrage over his death enables Rafeeq to seize power in Hagreb, and soon terrorists, the CIA, WTN, and Lockwood's political opponent Senator Mallory (Leslie Nielsen) are scrambling to get hold of the nukes for their own ends.
This film contains examples of:
- 20 Minutes into the Future: Though maybe twenty years into the future is more accurate.Hale: (narrating) It all could have happened in the recent past. Or the present. Or even, in the near future. But it didn't. It did happen in that elusive time between now and later. That time when dark is light, when down is up, when foul is fair, when...Title Card: WRONG IS RIGHT
- Arms Dealer: Helmet Unger, who is selling two suitcase nukes at a million dollars each. He appears to be on familiar terms with both Mallory and CIA director Philindros, making one wonder whether the whole thing was a sting operation from the start.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking
- The WTN chief tells Hale that if he can't prove his belief that Awad was murdered, it could mean: "slander, libel, or worse—a drop in the Nielsen ratings." Later he says they're going to be sued for bias, prejudice and equal time.
- After a suicide bomber blows himself up on television, a statement is issued saying his actions were a protest against a Long List of things ranging from the CIA to disco dancing.
- The psychological profile on Rafeeq lists shell-shock, psychopathy, megalomania and that he's a chronic masturbator.
- President Lockwood can either see millions die in nuclear destruction, or yield to terrorist demands that he resign, leading to the first black female president when his VP takes over.
- Auction of Evil: Rafeeq and WTN offers two million for the two nukes, the CIA offers 2.5, while Mallory is willing to pay three million (but actually sends his man Brown to kill Unger instead).
- Blatant Lies: Sally Blake greets Unger by name, claiming she got it from the business cards he's passing out. Unger looks at his card which says "Europa Trading Center" and a phone number, but no name.
- Chekhov's Gun: Hale gives King Awad a camera as a present, but somehow cuts his finger on it. Turns out the CIA switched the camera with their own, which injected Awad with a poisoned needle that killed him seven hours later. Hale realises that means the CIA killed Awad before the President gave the order.
- The Chessmaster: CIA director Philindros orchestrates events so the United States can invade Hagreb and seize the oilwells. This may even have been his plan from when Unger first offered the bombs for sale.
- Citywide Evacuation: Deconstructed. The bombs will go off in five hours and one minute. The President and VP are going over the evacuation plan for New York City. He's hopeful until Hale points out a few disclaimers.Hale: If we can squeeze an extra 40,000 vehicles into the New York traffic, another 300,000 persons into the airports...it's Page 18 of that report. If you don't take their cats, dogs, the old, the blind, if you abandon all the hospitals and all the people that are in them; don't panic and if the police don't panic...then maybe...you might save two million people, in how long?Vice President: Four days.President: (throws evacuation plan across the room) Didn't anybody check this report?!General Wombat: Eight years ago, sir. It was worthless then.
- Conversation Cut:
President: Sally Blake...was a spy?Rafeeq: No question! Everybody's a spy.
- Happens between the President's confidential security briefing and Hale's interview of Rafeeq at his terrorist training camp.
Hacker: Call my sister in New York. Tell her to—Wombat: —get out of town. (beat). No, don't tell your mother!
- The White House staff are secretly calling their families to get them out of New York before the nukes go off.
- Deadly Training Area: Hale rushes over to film a terrorist who falls down on the assault course, only to find he's been killed by a stray bullet. He's then pulled to cover by the female American terrorist when he gets too near a hut that's rigged to explode.
- Dead Man's Switch: At one stage the President is desperate enough to nuke Hagreb, but it's pointed out the bombs could have been set to detonate if Rafeeq doesn't send a signal.
- Defeat Means Friendship: President Lockwood and his Republican challenger, Senator Mallory, spend most of the movie at each other's throats. However, after Lockwood wins his reelection campaign, the two are seen having a friendly phone conversation. This is mainly due to Lockwood launching an invasion of a foreign nation that Mallory hates and initially believed Lockwood was too non-confrontational toward.
- Distinction Without a Difference: General Wombat says that America "may not always be right, but God knows we're never wrong."
- Enemies List: VP Ford orders her staff to assemble one when Mallory looks like he's going to win by a landslide and they have to start fighting dirty.
- Euphemism Buster: President Lockwood tries to couch his authorisation to kill King Awad in football metaphors, but CIA director Philindros isn't having it and insists that he spell out the order. Which he does, literally.Lockwood: K.I.L.L him, by God.
Philindros: By God, sir?
Lockwood: By executive order.
- Expy: King Awad and Rafeeq for Muammar Gaddafi (Rafeeq has some Fidel Castro aspects too, such as a liking for cigars).
- Failed Attempt at Drama: The President calls for the nuclear football...then realises he doesn't have the combination to open it.
- Fiery Cover-Up:
Lockwood: Watergate, remember? Think I want a black Ford in my future?
- Once President Lockwood gives the go-ahead to assassinate King Awad, the CIA agent in Hagreb gets all the files on Operation Suitcase and shoves them in the safe. A red light flashes, and when he opens the safe again there's only smoldering ash. Lockwood also orders the White House tape on their conversation burned.
- The terrorists plant a Booby Trap in the lamp in Unger's office, filling it with nitric acid that explodes when he turns it on. This burns up his files as well, removing evidence of his dealings with them.
- Firing in the Air a Lot: The marine guards at the Hagreb embassy do this to drive back a crowd of rioters, the terrorists at Rafeeq's training camp do this for Hale's camera, and it also happens at Senator Mallory's political rally.Mook: (holding phone out to Unger) American.Unger: Texas?Mook: Sounds like war. Shooting, yelling...Unger: Texas.
- Full-Circle Revolution: Once Rafeeq takes power in Hagreb, he loses interest in nuking New York and Jerusalem because the Americans will retaliate and he's more interested in selling oil than revolution (all those homeless Palestinians...well, too bad). He has to go after the nukes anyway once the President goes public, to cover up his involvement, and isn't above raising the price of oil to force Lockwood's resignation.
- Gambit Pileup: Once the President goes public on Operation Suitcase, everyone scrambles to get hold of the two suitcase nukes—the CIA (to prove the assassination was justified), Rafeeq (to remove the evidence), Mallory (also to remove the evidence so he'll win the election), and Hale (for an exclusive, but also because he doesn't want Mallory in the White House). Rafeeq's terrorists succeed in tracking the nukes down and taking them back to Hagreb, even though their leader no longer has any intention of using them. This backfires because it enables the CIA to send a fake demand from Rafeeq threatening to use the nukes, as a Pretext To War.
- Goodbye, Cruel World!: King Awad leaves a taped suicide note that is authenticated by the experts. Mallory however shows Hale that you can assemble the same message using taped recordings of Awad's radio speeches.
- Hearing Voices: King Awad. People dismiss this as a harmless eccentricity until they find out he's buying a couple of nukes and his voices are telling him to 'purify' Islam.
- Hidden Wire: CIA agent Sally Blake is killed by a terrorist bomb but her glasses are retrieved which contain a recording of her briefing on the suitcase bombs she saw. Later when the CIA director insists on getting proper authorisation for assassinating King Awad, the President asks if his glasses contain a recording device, so the director smashes them on the spot. Turns out he does have a hidden wire, hidden in one of his shirt buttons.
- Hypocritical Humor: Lockwood puts a lid on the news that Rafeeq is threatening to nuke New York City, and tells his staff that they can't even tell their families. Everyone then leaves the room to do just that, including the President.
- Information Wants to Be Free: Hale exposes Awad's assassination even though he agrees it's justified. Averted when Rafeeq calls him threatening to nuke New York City, because he knows the FBI can't find the bombs while the whole city is panicking.
- Intrepid Reporter: Although he admits he's as much an entertainer as a reporter, Hale is quite good at the latter, digging up the truth on Awad's death when everyone else thinks it's just suicide.
- It's Raining Men:
- Or in this case women. Rafeeq makes a declaration that an attack will take place in Washington D.C. The city is locked down, only for a stolen police helicopter to turn up and three women to parachute out and blow themselves up in mid-air, one of them the blonde American terrorist that Hale interviewed in Hagreb.
- The movie ends with General Wombat parachuting into Hagreb with a camera-bearing Hale, who reminds him they might have to put the war on hold for a moment because there's a commercial break coming up.
- My Country, Right or WrongPhilindros: Mr. Hale, we only try to do what's right.
Hale: Even when it's wrong?
Philindros: If it's good for America, it can't be wrong. Right?
- No Blood for Phlebotinum: The US invades Hagreb in retaliation for the attempt to nuke New York, conveniently seizing the oil wells and solving the country's energy crisis. Which it's implied was the CIA's plan all along.
- No Sale: When several assailants attack Unger's car, he barely reacts as they shoot his bulletproof window, and then proceeds to pull ahead of them, lower his window, and toss out a grenade to eliminate his pursuers.
- Office Golf: A variation; Lockwood is introduced riding an exercise bike in the Oval Office.
- Operation: [Blank]: The CIA operation to stop the suitcase nukes is called by the surprisingly unsubtle name of Operation Suitcase.
- Pin-Pulling Teeth: The CIA try to kill Unger by pulling up alongside his car and opening fire with a submachine gun, but his car is bulletproof. He pulls ahead and winds down the window, takes a grenade out of a satchel full of them that's on the seat next to him, pulls the pin with his teeth and throws it out the window, blowing up the CIA car.
- Plausible Deniability: Discussed Trope, but in this case the CIA director makes sure he has taped evidence of the President authorising him to assassinate Awad so the CIA are not left holding the bag.
- Political Overcorrectness: General Wombat apologises to the VP for describing the nuclear football as a little black box.
- Powerful Pick: An FBI agent who tries to detain the female terrorist gets an icepick in the throat.
- Proscenium Reveal
- The movie opens on scenes in The Big Rotten Apple: an old lady fighting off muggers, an armored car robbery, and a wife murdering her husband. Patrick Hale is then shown interviewing the wife, only to reveal it's actually a therapy center where people pay actors to help them live out their violent fantasies.
- Hale is driving a sailboat through the desert while acting as a Character Narrator, only for a Reveal Shot to show he's being followed by camera cars filming his live report from Hagreb where he's going to interview King Awad.
- Sassy Black Woman: The Vice President Mrs. Ford.Ford: Mr. President, if you resign...a woman...a black woman, will be in the White House, and she won't be serving dinner.
Lockwood: Congratulations, Madam President.
Ford: If I'm not shot before I'm sworn in. (laughs)
- Suicide Attack: The Eye of Gaza terrorists have plastique surgically implanted beneath their skin so they can smuggle bombs onto airplanes or blow themselves up before news cameras.
- There Are No Coincidences: When the FBI hasn't found the bombs before the deadline, the President realises he has to resign as per the terrorist demands. As he's traveling in a helicopter to the UN building, they fly past the World Trade Center and see the two suitcases hanging from the flagpole. However Hale quickly realises they were meant to be found as the CIA wanted a Pretext for War. Sure enough Rafeeq is shown to still have the suitcase bombs in his possession as his bunker is being bombed down around his ears.
- This Means War!: Once the bombs are defused Hale asks what happens now. Answer Cut to President Lockwood declaring war on Hagreb.
- Vice President Who?: Zigzagged. On one hand, the Vice-President is included in top-level strategy meetings and is taken seriously there. However, she also gets frisked at the door when no one else does and gets subjected to some jokes about being a Twofer Token Minority.
- Violence is the Only Option: The President debates what to do about the suitcase bombs. Get King Awad to crack down on the terrorists?—turns out he's in league with them. Freeze Hagreb's assets?—they've already been transferred to Swiss Bank Accounts. Nuke the country?—risk starting World War Three. Go public?—the press and Mallory will accuse you of playing election politics. Of course, if the CIA were to discretely arrange Awad's assassination...
- Visual Pun:
- While Hale is on television saying that Hacker is busy with "affairs of state", we see he's getting into bed with a beautiful woman.
- The President holds a press conference and tells the reporters to "Shoot!" Cut to Unger blazing away with an AR-18 assault rifle for his clients.
- Vox Pops: WTN surveys the American public on whether the President was right to kill Awad. Two men say he was right, a woman says he was wrong, while another woman replies, "King who?"
- War for Fun and Profit: Violence has become entertainment, and so the movie ends with Hale as an embedded journalist parachuting into combat with General Wombat.Hale: But before you take the oil wells remember—we're taking a three minute commercial break!
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Rafeeq naturally argues this during his interview by Hale, or at least that his terrorist acts are no different from the acts of destruction committed by Western nations like the bombing of Hiroshima or the atrocities in the Belgian Congo.