If The Ides of March has taught us anything before its release, it's that the political thriller is a fabulous forum to act well, build a surprising character and look amazing doing it. The genre of "political thriller" is an ill-defined one with many subgenres (including "supernatural political thriller"!), but it's always an opportunity for great characters to emerge through intriguing twists, red herrings and explosive climaxes. Movieline ranks the 10 best performances in the genre after the jump; please abort any nuclear wars you may have started before reading on
1. Cary Grant in Notorious (1946)
To call Hitchcock the master of suspense is understating the matter; he's also the grandmaster of cinematic espionage. In his definitive '40s caper Notorious, Cary Grant played T.R. Devlin, a government agent who is essentially forced to choose between -- as Hitchcock put it -- duty and love. Devlin also offers up the woman he loves, (Ingrid Bergman) as sexual bait to an elite Nazi spy (Claude Rains). It's a psychological drama within a romance within a political thriller, as so many Hitchcock classics are, and Cary Grant's combination of Arsenic and Old Lace swiftness and Suspicion intrigue make for a stunning and thrilling protagonist.
2. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Lansbury is unforgettable as the Manchurian Candidate's Svengali who works secretly as an embedded Communist agent with a plan to overtake the presidency. Her delightful disposition from Death on the Nile and Beauty and the Beast melts away in favor of hardened, frightening intention.
3. Jason Robards in All the President's Men (1976)
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman deliver fine, unadorned performances as Woodward and Bernstein in what remains the definitive political thriller, but no one hits harder in All the President's Men than Jason Robards. Though we know the roving duo will break the news story of the century, Robards's fierce command as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee is a slice of perfectly realized newsroom personality. Robards would win a second Oscar in as many years for his performance as Dashiell Hammett in Julia, but his earlier work here trumps that as a powerful, eminently modern portrayal.
4. Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Faye Dunaway's ability to be shrill, intelligent and real -- simultaneously -- is her gift, and in Three Days of the Condor she's a cool blend of savvy and startling. As the beleaguered Robert Redford's kidnapped accomplice who proves to be quite valuable, she punches in with a few magnificently stinging lines of dialogue. Has there ever been a line in cinema quite like, "You can always depend on the ol' spy fucker"?
5. Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964)
An electrical malfunction almost starts a nuclear war, and Jane's dad, our president, has to stop it! Tom Joad is as stonily courageous as ever in this stark thriller, and you can't take your eyes off him during his phone call with Buck, the president's translator (played by an august young Larry Hagman).
6. Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983)
The film adaptation of Stephen King's supernatural political thriller (a rare genre!) features a superb performance by Walken, who, as Kathy Griffin once pointed out to Movieline, wasn't "crazy" yet in '83. As a schoolteacher who gains a sixth sense and finds himself intercepting a dastardly U.S. Senatorial Candidate's (Martin Sheen) plot to ignite nuclear war, he fills his clairvoyant moments with fear and a jarring graveness.
7. George Clooney in Syriana (2005)
Clooney's Oscar-nabbing role as CIA vet Robert Barnes in the complex, but fascinating Syriana is masterful, and it also mirrors the audience's viewing experience: We're just as disoriented as he is in the film's mind-boggling world of distrust.
8. Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon (2008)
It may be a slightly arch impersonation, but Frank Langella's performance as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon required a plainspoken charisma that the actor brings thoroughly. All of Michael Sheen's reactive mugging is justified thanks to Langella's offbeat provocations.
9. James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
James Stewart frequently played deep, aloof protagonists who found themselves in dizzying circumstances in Hitchcock's movies, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception. As Dr. Ben McKenna, whose son has been kidnapped in a predictably crazy plot, Stewart finds himself trying to save the life of a head of state at London's Royal Albert Hall. Stewart's hustle as we await the all-important crash of cymbals makes for one of Hitchcock's most thrilling climaxes. You can stop singing "Que, Sera, Sera" now, Doris Day.
10. Joan Allen in The Contender (2000)
Joan Allen scored her third Academy Award nomination as Laine Henson, the shrewd vice presidential candidate who is stalwart in protecting her past, even if exposing it would clear her of damning allegations. In this climactic scene, Henson opens up to the president (Jeff Bridges) and scintillates with her straightforward morality.
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