In 1997, Conspiracy Theory, due to the lead roles being played by Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, introduced the movie audience to the mindset of a conspiracy theorist… who turns out to be correct.
by Philip Coppens
On the set of the movie Assassins (released in 1995), producer Joel Silver asked screenwriter Brian Helgeland whether he was brewing on any other ideas. There was: Conspiracy Theory. Producer/director Richard Donner liked the idea, arguing that “in the past decade, there has been an increase in the readiness of many people to believe in conspiracy theories. There’s a great comfort in believing that there’s this malignant force that we can justifiably rage against.” To quote from the movie, that force is just “they”. “They who?” “They. I don’t know. That’s why they call them they. And them.”
The central storyline of a US conspiracy theory normally revolves around the fact that most presidential assassins are “lone gunmen”. Even in the case of the Oklahama bombing, Timothy McVeigh acted alone. And in the case of 9/11, it are just 17 hired hands, hired by one religious madman, Osama bin Laden. Official government explanations thus always go for a solo perpetrator, whereby the anti-thesis, “the conspiracy theory”, often argues the crime was committed by several people working together, often for a far different goal than the lone gunman, who often acts out his madness. Sceptics argue that conspiracy theories are seldom proven, though there is of course a difference between a proven fact and a real fact. Or, to quote once again from the movie: “A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, it means they screwed up somewhere along the line.” In Conspiracy Theory, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is an eccentric taxi driver who believes that many world events are actually government conspiracies. The list of conspiracy theories he rattles off at his clients is a good synopsis of the most popular theories that floated about at the time:
– the controversy surrounding fluoride in tap water, claimed to strengthen the teeth, yet believed to have more negative than positive effects in general, which is now (slowly) becoming generally accepted.
– Lee Harvey Oswald as being a patsy, rather than the lone gunman who killed President Kennedy.
– various US militia groups claiming to fight for America’s independence if so required, but who are in truth disguised UN troops, ready to take over the US.
– George H Bush and his New World Order, noting that he was an ex-director of Central Intelligence and a 33rd degree Freemason.
– the 100 dollar note containing a tracking device.
– black helicopters which can fly in whisper mode, so that no-one hears them coming.
Director Richard Donner later revealed that these scenes were ad-libbed by Gibson because they wanted realistic reactions. But it was soon reported that these conspiracy theories ad-libbed by Gibson were his personal views. Gibson did say: “As far as conspiracy theories go, I give some credence to them. I have no doubt that there’s a covert force at work somewhere, keeping things undercover and admitting only certain things to the public.” It is immediately clear that Jerry is very intense (he even spouts conspiracy theories when there is no-one in the car, not noticing he does not have a fare). And then there are sudden, violent flashbacks, which almost kill him and his passenger as he loses all sense of this reality. Is he having flashbacks because of bad experiences in the past, like the VietNam war? A VietNam war which in his opinion was fought over a bet that Howard Hughes lost to Aristotle Onassis. Jerry is the first to admit he is not “normal”. “To be normal, to drink Coca-Cola and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken is to be in a conspiracy against yourself.” Conspiracy theorists are often seen as “anti-American”, an easy way for those trying to enforce the government line to try to rally the people behind their cause. But truth is that most Conspiracy theorists are more pro-American than most. And so is Jerry: though he is convinced that there are vast government conspiracies, he is a true patriot: there is an American flag in his apartment and each sinister plot he uncovers, he informs the local assistant district attorney, Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts) about, hoping that the government can stop the evil elements hiding amongst them within their tracks.
But it seems that his visits also have an amorous undertone. In fact, it soon becomes evident that he actually stalks her, watching her work out inside her home. It is therefore difficult to see whether his conspiracy theory is concocted just to see her, or whether he truly believes it. His latest theory is that there have been six major earthquakes in the past 3.5 years; each time the space shuttle was in orbit, which makes him conclude that the space shuttle is testing some secret seismic weapon that causes earthquakes on Earth. He believes that the president’s next visit to Turkey, to coincide with a space shuttle being in orbit, may be used as an opportunity to assassinate the President. Jerry hopes that Sutton will forward this warning to the Secret Service. The outlandishness of the theory and the obsessive nature of Jerry mean that Sutton is less than willing to send the warning up the chain of command. Jerry’s home is like Fort Knox, with fire-proof walls and a lock on his fridge, so that no-one is able to poison him. The exterior of the flat was actually filmed on Thompson Street in Manhattan’s Soho district. That particular street showed the towers of the World Trade Centre in the background, and is referred to on the DVD as “the symbol of the first foreign terrorist act in modern America”, this at a time when 9/11 had not yet occurred.
We then learn that he reads, highlights and clips newspaper articles, assembling them into his theories, which he writes down in his newsletter, Conspiracy Theory. He sends the individual copies off to his subscribers from various, different post boxes throughout the city… so that no-one would be able to intercept them. Still, it doesn’t take him too long, as he only has five subscribers. It reveals his paranoia… or perhaps awareness of government practices of mail intercept. At one point, he recognises government employees in the process of carrying out something in the middle of the city and he follows these agents, leading him to an office building, which turns out to be the offices of the CIA. But he himself is identified and this seems to start off several alarm bells, so many in fact that he is kidnapped in the middle of the road and taken to a facility where he is strapped and prepared for an interrogation. The key question he is being asked is: “who knows and to whom have you been talking?” But Jerry does not know what he has done. At this moment in time, the conspiracy-minded viewer will make the connection: Jerry has been subjected to mind control: he has been forced to forget certain parts of his life, which his CIA handlers think he has now remembered, hence they are interrogating him as to find out what he can remember, and what he has told people about what he should have forgotten. For everyone else, it leaves a series of questions which leaves us and Jerry utterly confused. The interrogator is Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), a character which is believed to have been based on Dr. Ewen Cameron, one of the leading “researchers” in the top secret CIA MK-ULTRA mind control experiments. Most of the MK-ULTRA records were deliberately destroyed in 1972 by order of Director Richard Helms, so it is impossible to have a complete understanding of the more than 150 individually funded research projects. From the little information that is publicly available, it appears that the CIA allowed him to carry out potentially deadly experiments.
Donald Ewen Cameron (1901-1967) was the author of the psychic driving concept, which the CIA found particularly interesting. He noted that erasing existing memories and completely rebuilding the psyche was a means to re-educate people… and the US government soon recruited him to see where this could go in respect to more onerous purposes. As the CIA was by law forbidden to operate on US territory, Cameron commuted to Montreal every week to work at the Allan Memorial Institute. There, he experimented with LSD and paralytic drugs, as well as electroshock “therapy”. His “driving” experiments consisted of putting subjects into drug-induced coma for months on end (up to three in one case) while playing tape loops of noise or simple repetitive statements. Such “therapy” left many of these victims emotionally scared – or worse. As it did not occur on US soil nor involved US citizens, the CIA had no legal objections. But documents released in 1977 revealed that some of the thousands of unwitting, as well as voluntary, subjects were indeed US citizens.
The experiments were very similar to those that the Nazis performed during World War II, which according to some researchers was the immediate cause why the CIA began to perform similar experiments after World War II – though officially, communist brainwashing of American POWs in Korea were cited as the pressing cause why the US had to engage in such demonic abuse. Intriguingly, Cameron was actually a member of the Nuremberg medical tribunal, where he accused German medics of things he himself did later. Cameron died before MK-ULTRA was exposed, which means that this world famous psychiatrist, who served as the second President of the World Psychiatric Association, as well as president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations, was never publicly confronted with the horrors he had created in his subjects. Today, it is assumed that the creation of a robotic assassin was indeed high on the wish list of the CIA, but it is unknown whether Cameron – or his successor – were ever able to create one.
Others have identified Sidney Gottlieb as the inspiration for “Dr. Jonas”. Gottlieb headed MK-ULTRA when it was started on the order of CIA director Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953. He was granted six percent of the CIA operating budget, without oversight or accounting. Gottlieb approved of an MK-ULTRA subproject on LSD in a June 9, 1953 letter. It would soon lead to the accidental death of Frank Olson, a United States Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher who was given LSD without his knowledge or consent (though the CIA, as it would, later claimed it had consent). Olson committed suicide a week later following a severe psychotic episode; a CIA doctor assigned to monitor Olson’s recovery was supposedly asleep in another bed in a New York City hotel room when Olson jumped through the window to fall ten stories to his death.
As so often in the shadowy world of the CIA, this was however not the total truth. Olson’s son argued that his father was murdered due to his knowledge of the sometimes-lethal interrogation techniques employed by the CIA in Europe, used on Cold War prisoners. Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994 and cranial injuries indeed suggested that Olson had been knocked unconscious before exiting the window. So MK-ULTRA may actually have been used as a cover for a meditated murder. Still, despite the fame of the Olson case, less known is the fact that Harold Blauer, a professional tennis player in New York City, also died as a result of a similar experiment involving mescaline – and this time, there seems to be no double cover-up involved. Jerry is able to escape from his mental institution where he is slowly brainwashed (biting off the nose of Dr. Jonas), but walks into the District Attorney’s office in a totally confused state, resulting in his arrest and confinement to a mental institution – one which is not run by the CIA. Sutton, however, does not give up on him, visits him and when he asks her to switch medical charts in the hospital with another patient, as he is convinced they will kill him, she does. Indeed, soon afterwards, the other patient is found to have died of an unexpected heart attack, but the case of mistaken identity is quickly identified – even though Sutton is able to identify Dr. Jonas (with a plaster on his nose as his “dog had bitten him”) and realises that Jerry has been telling the truth.
But why is the CIA out to get him? They believe that it may have something to do with what he has written in one of his newsletters, so Sutton engages herself in trying to identify the five subscribers. When she does, she finds that one of them has suddenly died the day before. Shortly afterwards, one of the five subscribers is indeed uncovered as being a “government subscription”. Rather than intercept his newsletter, the CIA simply took out a subscription to it, to learn about its contents. Jerry is on the run… and Jonas pins his hopes on Sutton and is able to turn Sutton against Jerry, by painting a version of the truth that is appealing to her. He tells her that he was indeed the leader of MK-ULTRA, which originally was science sponsored by the government. But John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on President Reagan stopped this (In “public reality”, the programme was stopped before.). No, Hinckley was not programmed by the CIA to kill the president, but the MK-ULTRA techniques had been stolen and apparently Hinckley had been trained by whomever had stolen it. Once MK-ULTRA was stopped, Jonas moved into the private sector too. And Jerry was one of his trained assassins, sent to murder Sutton’s father, a high-profile lawyer. Gerry, says Jonas, performed the task, which is the reason why he has been obsessed with her ever since.
The truth, or another lie? Soon, Jerry remembers the truth and realises that he was indeed programmed by Jonas to kill her father, but he could not do so, as he saw Alice and he could not kill a father in front of his daughter. Jerry knew that Jonas was going to send another assassin to do what he failed to do, so he watched her – over her – and became friends with her father, who helped him in his efforts to try to remember who he was – memories erased by Jonas in trying to make Jerry into a robotic assassin. Alice’s father actually wanted to expose the crimes of Jonas, and by extension the CIA, which meant that Jonas now made sure he would be killed. And he was. He had asked Jerry to look after his daughter – which explains why Jerry is watching over her – rather than stalking her. Jerry is eventually tracked down because of his need to have and buy copies of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. Earlier, Sutton had found numerous copies in his flat and asked why he had so many copies of a single book. Does he like it? “Not really.” He does not know why, but he has a “drive” to buy copies of this book and it is clear that this is indeed a “driver”, part of the programming by MK-ULTRA. Even though he is on the run, he soon has an irrational urge to buy a copy of the book and as soon as it is scanned for payment, that information is relayed to Jonas’ crew, suggesting that they are somehow able to monitor every book sale that occurs in America – which if that were the case, would be one of the biggest conspiracy theories around.
The reference to “The Catcher in the Rye” was taken from real life, for Mark David Chapman, the assassin of ex-Beatle John Lennon, had a paperback edition of the book in his possession when the police arrived and found him standing “very calmly”– as if he too was a mind-controlled assassin, having completed his task, and now aimlessly standing about, waiting to be arrested as the “lone gunman”? But Chapman was not alone: John Hinckley was also reported to have been obsessed with the book and as both “lone gunmen” were considered by some to be coming of the MK-ULTRA robotic assassin production line, the book was soon interpreted as a “driver” in their mind control – and thus how this conspiracy theory made it into the movie Conspiracy Theory.
As to Hinckley: he claimed that he had repeatedly watched the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, in which a disturbed man plots to assassinate a presidential candidate – a story in line with The Manchurian Candidate, which has similar themes of MK-ULTRA worked into it. The disturbed man in Taxi Driver was inspired by real-life would-be assassin Arthur Herman Bremer, who shot US Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace on May 15, 1972 in Laurel, Maryland, leaving him paralyzed for life – and in practice guaranteeing the re-election of Richard Nixon for his ill-fated second term.
Jerry, of course, is a taxi driver in Conspiracy Theory… Bizarre coincidence therefore that Jodie Foster would originally play the role of Alice Sutton, but the role went to Julia Roberts, who was no stranger herself to the world of conspiracies, after her leading role in The Pelican Brief.
Jerry early on in the movie obsesses about Alice and that same obsession is found between Hinckley and Jodie Foster – which was probably the reason why Foster declined the role as it was too close to her real life. When Foster entered Yale University, Hinckley moved to New Haven, Connecticut to be nearer to her, slipping poems and messages under her door and repeatedly contacting her by telephone. Failing to develop any meaningful contact with her, he developed such plots as hijacking an airplane and committing suicide in front of her in order to gain her attention. Eventually he settled on a scheme to win her over by assassinating the president, on the theory that by becoming a historical figure, he would be her equal. It sounds mad, but then we are assumed to believe he was mad, so… He trailed then-president Jimmy Carter from state to state, but was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee on a firearms charge. Penniless, he returned home and despite psychiatric treatment for depression, his mental health did not improve. In 1981, he began to target the new president, Ronald Reagan, and apparently began to collect information on Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he saw as a role model. Of course, that’s the official version and there are several conspiracy theories, one, as mentioned, asking whether Hinckley was a robotic assassin… or that Hinckley’s bullets all missed Reagan, who was instead shot by one of his own Secret Service agents, perhaps in an effort to make George Bush (then Vice President) President of the United States, sooner, rather than later.
The film also contains references to “Geronimo”, a prominent Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache who warred against the encroachment of the United States on his tribal lands and people. There is a “conspiracy theory” that in 1918, Prescott Bush Sr., “tribal elder” of the “Bush tribe” led a raid on a Indian tomb to secure Geronimo’s skull for the secret Skull & Bones society. Alexandra Robbins in “Secrets of the Tomb” attests to the legitimacy of the story, stating that “the text looks to be an authentic Bones document describing Prescott Bush and other Bonesmen robbing Geronimo’s grave and cleaning the skull with carbolic acid.” In interviews with Robbins, Bonesmen have admitted that there is a skull in the tomb that they call Geronimo. As to whether it is the genuine Geronimo skull, most Bonesmen state that they believe the bones are either fake or non-human. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? In the end, Jonas’ lies are exposed and he pays for it with his own life… a fight in which Jerry officially dies too… though his death is merely a convenient lie, so that rogue elements linked with Jonas and the “military industrial complex” do not come after him or Sutton. Jerry’s death has been staged by another – unnamed – organisation within American intelligence. “If the intelligence community is a family, think of us as the uncle no one talks about.”
Meanwhile, it is learned that an earthquake has hit Turkey, during the presidential visit… but the president is not hurt. It leaves the viewer with the question whether new methods, seismic weapons, were now being used by the “military industrial complex” to pressurise or remove the President as it had become clear that their robotic assassins had failed to fulfil their assignments. And for anyone who wonders, “seismic weapons” are another conspiracy theory… for officially they do not exist and are, “apparently”, “hard to be created”… just like robotic assassins, I would think.