Empty Balcony: Seven Days in May

This may have been the wrong film for me to watch while there’s a lunatic in the White House. Seven Days in May, the classic political thriller from 1964, tells the story of a Marine Colonel who stumbles upon a military plot to overthrow the president. It’s a gripping story, full of the opposing ideologies of the Atomic Age, and of deterministic governance. Its ideas are grand, and yet simple. The nuance of true politics is lacking, as are the skeletons in every president’s closet that make declarations about fairness and the will of the people awkward to hear, but that doesn’t matter. The story is amazing.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, from a screenplay by Rod Serling, who was adapting the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, Seven Days in May stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey. He’s a career Marine officer whose current posting is as the direct aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). This is one of those films that’s big on military brass, as if a person’s importance increases with the amount of shiny stuff on their tunic and letters in the combination of their name and title.

General Scott certainly buys into that. As the movie begins, the populace is fed up with President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March). His crime? He negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. In just a few short weeks the United States and the Soviet Union will begin a complete dismantling of their nuclear arsenals. In effect, the Cold War is being ended by treaty. It’s a good deal for humanity…or is it?

The idea that there was ever a moment during the Cold War when both sides would have been amenable to total disarmament is far-fetched. It’s even more far-fetched than the idea of a military coup happening in the United States. The mutual distrust between Seven Days in Maythe United States and the Soviet Union was too much for both nations to overcome. The closest we ever came to such a deal was a brief moment when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were feeling the love during a summit, but reality reasserted itself quickly.

Distrust is at the heart of this story, as well. The military in this film is not behind President Lyman’s treaty. They generally believe that the Soviet Union will not disarm, and the United States will be leaving itself defenseless without a nuclear deterrent. There is a lot of merit to this argument. For one, there’s no way the United States wouldn’t hold back some nukes. You know, just in case. Despite everything we hear said about the United States being a peace-loving nation, deep down we all know that’s bullshit. We’ve been around for 240 years now, and we’ve been engaging in some form of war for over 90% of that time. When we talk about freedom and peace, we mean for us, here at home. The fictional generals in this film know that, and they know that if we are going to violate the treaty and keep nukes, then so will the Soviets.

General Scott is looking to take advantage of the military’s animosity towards the treaty, and the public’s growing distaste of President Lyman. Early in the film, we see that he is a new incarnation of George McClellan or Douglas MacArthur. That is, a person so sure of their own greatness and importance to the United States that they feel they are above the authority of both the president and the constitution. Scott hears the adulation of crowds and mistakes that for permission to destroy a government. He wouldn’t be the first despot to seize power with the wind of popular sentiment at his back. But he is blind to the fact that were he to seize power, the country he inherits would no longer be the republic it once was. In a single moment, all the things he professes to believe about the United States would evaporate. But, that’s what happens when narcissists lead nations. Luckily for the United States of Seven Days in May, there is a Jiggs Casey to stop it all from happening.

Jiggs sees some communications between General Scott and the other members of the Joint Chiefs, and, combined with other pieces of circumstantial evidence, comes to the conclusion that a coup will take place during a planned military exercise at the end of the week. He meets with the president and his staff and convinces them of the plot. Now it’s a race against the clock. President Lyman, Jiggs, a trusted inner circle of presidential aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), the head of the president’s Secret Service detail, Art Corwin (Bart Burns), and the Secretary of the Treasury, Chris Todd (George Macready), form an ad hoc investigative committee that must gather proof of the plot. If they can do so before the exercise begins, they can confront the traitorous officers and stop the coup from ever proceeding.

From the moment Jiggs discovers the plot until it unravels, the film maintains constant tension. Of course we know Scott won’t succeed. That’s not how Hollywood works. But that had absolutely no effect on my suspension of disbelief. The climax of the film is a taut scene in the Oval Office between President Lyman and General Scott, where Scott is confronted by the president. There’s a lot of high school civics stuff about the United States spouted in this scene, but it sure is nice to be reminded of our core beliefs.

This is a film with tip-top performances from just about everyone in the cast. There is somewhat of a love story tacked on involving Ava Gardner. Much work was done to make this side plot important, but there’s no disguising that it’s auxiliary to the main action.

Seven Days in May is a classic. For it’s time, it was a warning about the perils our republic constantly faces. We are no different than any other people on the planet. We have people that crave power and would be willing to do anything to get it. Right now, there are people walking our streets who are just as bad as Vladimir Putin or Mobutu Sese Seko. What has kept our country from falling under the rule of people like these are our strong laws and institutions. And right now, they are undergoing their greatest test since the Civil War.

While watching this movie, I couldn’t help but compare the fictional President Lyman and his situation with the very real President Trump. Lyman did what he thought was right in negotiating the disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. He had enough pull to get the Senate to ratify it, despite the public being against it. The military was always going to be against it no matter what, as they have a vested interest in keeping the United States armed to the teeth. President Lyman did nothing to deserve a coup. Indeed, at one point, Lyman asks Scott why he couldn’t wait another 18 months and beat Lyman at the ballot box. Scott certainly had the popular support to run. But Scott wasn’t having any of it. He was seizing his moment, under the guise of protecting the country.

Whether or not Lyman represented an immediate danger was pure speculation on Scott’s part, making his coup all about him and not the country. Scott wasn’t just a misdirected character. He was a bad man.

In our current situation, out here in the real world, it’s our president who is the bad man. He is a real danger to the future existence of the United States. Even if he manages to serve out a full term without destroying us, Trump has done enough damage to political norms that no future president can be counted on to close Pandora’s box. Trump has shown that disinformation is a powerful weapon in winning the presidency. It was no less of a vile tactic during the campaign than it has been now that he’s the president.

Trump has shown a total disrespect for the checks and balances of American government. His malignancy is born of his ignorance, as well. In his mind, being president means being in absolute power, and he has been surprised that his edicts don’t have the force of law. His expectations have been confronting reality these last few weeks, which is somewhat reassuring, but the root problem still exists — he is still president. As long as that condition continues, all court decisions, all mass protests, all resistance he meets in Congress is merely treating the symptoms of the disease. For the good of the country, Donald Trump must be removed from the presidency.

How would we feel were a General Scott to appear? If illegal means were employed to overthrow President Trump, then our republic would be forfeit, just like in Seven Days in May. Donald Trump is an existential threat, but any immediate solution to that threat will destroy the United States. That’s where some of our fear for the future of this country comes from. There is an innate understanding among our civically minded populace that in order to keep our country intact, we have to show patience in dealing with the monster in the Oval Office. In order to stay who we are as a nation, we can’t depend on the anti-democratic aspirations of any potential General Scotts. We have to continue walking this knife edge, and hope that the accumulation of legal means of undermining the Trump presidency is enough.

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