The genre of straightforward political films (as opposed to the allegorical or documentary) is easily one of the more scandalous in the medium's short history. Even more controversial is the sub-genre of films dealing with assassination – both literal and figurative - and/or illicit, governmentally controlled actions against private individuals. Since both genres are inevitably fraught with subjective considerations that unavoidably come into play, the films themselves invite (and are always subject to) criticism outside the realm of the aesthetic. If one's compass is in accord with the ideologies behind the films and at work within them, they are often elevated to levels not necessarily earned based upon the evidence presented on the screen; conversely, if not in accord, they can be utterly and unfairly dismissed (again, not necessarily earned based on the evidence presented on the screen). Obviously, subject matter concerning politics, governmental duplicity, and assassination can make for gripping cinema, but to merely regurgitate what actually "happened" in any given set of factual circumstances can prove to be crushingly boring.
Watergate, for example, proved fertile ground for exciting, important films both speculative and factually based (see Robert Altman's Secret Honor and Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, respectively); however, upon reading the transcripts of the hearings proper, one can immediately understand the value of the screenwriter and the editor. Although the two are by no means mutually exclusive, there is a difference between that which is historically interesting and that which is dramatically interesting.
Timing can also be very tricky. When filmmakers tackle politically charged and inspired works in close proximity to the events' occurrence (and while many of the involved are still amongst the living), all hell can – and often does – break loose. Oliver Stone's JFK, released almost thirty years after President Kennedy's assassination, engendered bombastic criticism on multiple levels and calls for the director's head; John Frankenheimer's the Manchurian Candidate (1962), which was released just before the assassination, was indefinitely shelved due to certain, potentially uncomfortable, parallels. I think the main problem lies in approach: if the film is cloaked in the air of factual representation (such as JFK, and Michael Mann's recent, masterful the Insider, which was more corporate-minded but in the same vein), the criticism often reaches an altogether higher level of vitriol, replete with calls for artistic integrity and responsibility (whatever that admonition means).
However, if the film is couched in satire, it seems to afford the filmmakers a comfort zone of sorts, wherein derision is not quite as barbed since the presentation is often flatly dismissed as either outright paranoia or exaggerated fantasy. Some of the most effective political films (by this I mean to suggest those that are both entertaining on their own terms and politically thought-provoking, as opposed to merely didactic and pandering), seamlessly bridge the tricky terrain of engaging an audience dramatically through recognizable human behavior and motivations while simultaneously illustrating clear eyed ideological assessments. Since thematic concerns do not necessarily jive with historical ones, to judge a political work based solely upon one criterion or the other is to ultimately shortchange both the filmmaker and the viewer. Any way you slice it, it's a high wire act – and, to continue the analogy, such films tend to either maintain that difficult balance or crash to the ground. And there isn't always a safety net.
In the seventies, major studio films such as the Parallax View, Executive Action, Blow Out, and Three Days of the Condor all dealt with conspiracies, assassination, and cynicism toward government and positions of economic and military power; they were essentially removing (if not downright eviscerating) once-heralded institutions from their historical pedestals. Again, wit seemed to go a very long way, but that too was often deceiving (although produced in the sixties, take for example the Manchurian Candidate – whether viewed as a straightforward, cautionary telling or as flat out satire, the end result is similarly chilling). Winter Kills was, at the time of release in 1979, certainly one of the most straightforward in its depiction of corporate and governmental interests intersecting in extremely insidious ways, leading to (and implicitly even engineered to result in) the assassination of an American President.
Based upon the novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the Manchurian Candidate and the equally dark and witty Prizzi's Honor), it was also the most thinly veiled, as its agenda in demystifying both the Presidency and the Kennedy clan (especially patriarch Joseph, who helped maneuver John to the Presidency) could hardly be described as disguised. The film, plagued by now legendary production problems, was helmed by first time feature director William Richert and quickly came and went, never quite gaining the audience or consideration it deserved. Lucky for us, this long-neglected conspiracy thriller / satire has been released by Anchor Bay in a two-disc special edition which will hopefully help the film gain a new audience and reassessment.
When we first meet Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), he is traveling aboard a family-owned oil tanker. He receives an abrupt visit from family operative Keifitz (Richard Boone), who arrives in tow with a mortally wounded man claiming to have been one of the killers of Nick's half-brother, President Timothy Kegan (who was assassinated in Philadelphia nineteen years earlier). The purported gunman gives Nick information regarding the location of a rifle that he used in the attack. Soon after, Nick finds the weapon as promised, and in alarmingly short order the bodies of those who seem to have any knowledge of the murder begin piling up. Nick entrusts this new information with his father, "Pa" Kegan (played with relish by screen giant John Huston), who in turn begins to arrange and orchestrate the internal investigation.
What results is an altogether confounding (and seemingly over-the-top) brew of conspiracy within conspiracy, concerning such divergent groups as the Philadelphia Police Department, Cuban interests, low-level civilian operatives, Nick's lover (Belinda Bauer), the Mafia, and even the Kegan corporate empire. As Nick is awakened from his privileged, pampered lifestyle and thrust into a world where no one can be trusted, the film never lets up – the viewer is purposely placed into the same state of bewilderment as that of our protagonist. The momentum of the plot is whip-fast and serpentine, by turns mordantly funny, unabashedly paranoid, and gleefully cynical. However, the true power of the film resonates after the histrionics are over – it is then that the deeply disturbing implications of the work truly begin to settle in.
For a first time feature director, Richert assembled an excellent (not to mention eclectic) cast. Once John Huston officially decided to come on board, the rest quickly fell into place (in the commentary and featurette, Richert notes that Huston knew Joseph Kennedy and did not especially care for him – which no doubt added fuel to his lusty, energetic performance). Jeff Bridges, often underrated, does fine work as the spoiled, aimless son now given a real purpose; other familiar faces, such as Dorothy Malone, Ralph Meeker, Eli Wallach, Kurosawa regular Toshirô Mifune(!), and Elizabeth Taylor (uncredited) all make memorable, brief appearances. Special note should be made of Sterling Hayden's gruff, sly performance as a old family foe who meets Nick in the middle of a "real" war game, and Anthony Perkins, who achieves a great balance of nebbishness and true menace through his inimitable vocal cadence and body language (his
role as "information minister" of sorts is one of the most menacing aspects of the film – when we witness the "contract silo," one need only ponder its nature in our current times of the internet and wireless communication to fully appreciate its prescient nature).
Video: Anchor Bay presents Winter Kills in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The DVD looks extraordinary – I was simply stunned by the quality of the transfer. There are only minor instances of graininess; otherwise, it's flawless. Master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's work is beautifully rendered, and Robert F. Boyle's production design is compulsively interesting. Richert's direction is generally surefooted and intelligent – his composition is at times appropriately off-kilter, and the few instances of Bridges sharing the frame with some sort of weapon in the foreground adds nicely to the overall tone of the film.
Audio: Winter Kills is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and its sounds great. The score, by Maurice Jarre, compliments the film nicely, from its militaristic refrains to pulsing, jarring suspense. I only detected the slightest amounts of tinniness in the horns at their highest registers, but it was brief and not distracting. Very well done.
Extras: There is a full length commentary track by writer / director William Richert which is quite a bit of fun. To call the man enthusiastic is an understatement – he is clearly having a ball, and shares some rather frank assessments regarding the film's troubled production. Also on board is a thirty-eight minute featurette on the production entitled Who Killed Winter Kills?, which goes into great detail regarding the more sordid aspects of the film's history: it was shut down on more than one occasion due to union conflicts; one executive producer was murdered execution style during filming, the other wound up doing time in a federal penitentiary; members of the crew received cash payments in hotel rooms while shooting in Philadelphia, etc. The behind the scenes shenanigans are almost as conspiratorial as the film itself, and the featurette includes interviews with Richert, Bridges, actress Bauer, Zsigmond, and Boyle. There is also a 9-minute Reunion, which is not very compelling, and Star Stories, which has Richert describing his experiences with the cast of the film. The release also includes the trailer, a stills gallery, and the original screenplay for DVD-Rom.
Spoiler Alert: It should also be noted that due to the nature of the film and the extras, they should only be viewed after the feature itself. Anchor Bay is even considerate enough to post this warning prior to the extras menu.
Final Thoughts: Winter Kills deserves due consideration in the American political assassination sub-genre and, I think, a rather high placement within its canon. Although the film itself may strain credulity at certain instances throughout its lean, 97-minute duration, the critique (and foreboding) is such that it becomes a truly disturbing treatise cloaked within a clever disguise of paranoia. The film's almost overripe satire, as stated above, was absolutely necessary - Richert himself echoes in his commentary and in the featurette that the film could not have been completed as straightforward drama since the Kennedy assassination was in many ways still omnipresent in the American psyche.
I can think of very few films (the Manchurian Candidate immediately springs to mind) that are as simultaneously witty and disconcerting as Winter Kills. Richert also notes that towards the end of the production certain scenes were truncated and others were eliminated due to constraints, which is indeed a shame – the film would have ultimately benefited from a bit more exposition. That being said, however, the film is certainly not incoherent and rewards subsequent viewing. Along with its recent, two-disc Special Edition of the Man Who Fell to Earth - another equally iconoclastic and deserving film from the seventies - Anchor Bay has truly done some invaluable work with this excellent release. Winter Kills is recommended in general, and highly recommended to fans of this genre.