With coup in the news these days I felt it was a good time to revisit this old film. I first watched it in 1991 when I lived in Wichita, KS. I loved Power Play so much I made it a feature for a “Conspiracy Night” party at my townhouse and entertained guests with it. I would answer door in dark sunglasses and make sure everyone knew the password. Little plastic insect “bugs” were planted all over the living room. The other flick I showed on video was the President’s Analyst. Before I showed Power Play, I warned everyone that this movie showed the work of professional conspirators, so “don’t try this at home”.
I thought about it recently when events in Turkey brought the whole concept of a military putsch to the surface. A respectable news commentator suggested one in a roundabout fashion if their presidential candidate doesn’t receive the popular vote. I thought it timely to place a review of it on a blog devoted to fictional spies, conspiracies and whatever secret work might happen this week. Sometimes it seems fiction overtakes reality.
The film begins with a man in a suit walking through Times Square when it was still a trash pit and ground zero for sleaze America. A huge theater marquee is viewed for Suspiria, which places the movie in the late 1970’s. When the man appears on the Dick Cavett show, we learn he was involved in a military coup. The story of the coup is told in flashback. Dick Cavett, a popular talk show host in those days, plays himself.
We never do learn the name of the country where the coup takes place. It is deliberately kept from the audience. Even the military uniforms of the people involved lack much in the way of insignia. The national flag is three contrasting colors, so it could be any place. Even the names of the principle characters are vague, sometimes suggesting Arabic, sometimes English. Most of the actors are well-known British stage and screen performers, which give it that Death Star feel. The other thing the principal actors have in common is they all appear to be Caucasian.
Terrorists were busy in the republic, as the army colonel explains at the beginning. They’d kidnapped a corrupt minister and slaughtered his escort in the process. His body is dumped outside a picnic at an estate that belongs to another high-ranking army officer. The security service, led by Donald Pleasance in full Himmler mode, has the local terrorist cell butchered and the survivors brutally interrogated. A group of army officers, disgusted by the ineptness and corruption of the civilian government take it upon themselves to stage a coup and bring order to the nation.
Most of the movie involves the plotters as they work together to identify supporters and allies in the military. Of course, the evil head of state security service knows something is up and plans to stop the military revolt before it takes place. The conspirators fear there may be a “mole” inside their cells and work to ferret him out. Their efforts are complicated by an alcoholic army officer whom they decided to use as bait for the government. When the coup takes place, it goes according to plan until the end. To give away more would be a spoiler.
This movie drags a bit in the middle, as you are lost in the endless maze of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. Which officer will be brought into the inner circle? Whom can they really trust? Will the chief of state security uncover the plot before it takes place? Who will survive? At this point, the film turns into a mystery and it’s a guessing game who the infiltrator is in the secret council meetings.
Most of the action takes place in the last fifteen minutes when the armored personnel carriers begin to roll. The movie is worth watching just to see Peter O’Toole standing on top of a tank leading a column down the road as people turn and look. Somehow, you know he took the part just to play that scene. This is where the shooting begins and any hope of a bloodless coup stops. Some of the technology used is a little dated. For instance, the “count-down” clocks the conspirators use to monitor the progress of the putsch from their control room are those big digital monstrosities, which were considered cutting edge in 1978.
Much of the tension is generated between Col. Narriman (David Hemmings) and military instructor Jean Rousseau (Barry Space 1999 Morse). Narriman plans to quit the army at the beginning of the film and retire to his farm, but Rousseau wants him to take part in the secret officer plot. Rousseau stresses it will be clean and effective, but Narriman has his doubts, which later turns out to be true. Compound this with an army officer who is a loose cannon, and you have real drama. It doesn’t hurt to have actors of high-caliber used in this film. Even people who don’t care for the slow pace in the middle of Power Play admit that the every actor is brilliant.
Much of it is standoff. Will a tank commander order his unit back to its base or will he defy the leader of the opposition who’s blocked the road? Will an airborne brigade be able to land at a military base controlled by the opposition before their fuel runs out? It makes for great drama. It also made me want to read the nonfiction book the movie was based upon. The book, incidentally, was called Coup d’Etat- A Practical Handbook and was published in 1968 by Edward Luttwak.
The ending is grim. Not in a vague sort of way, but a reminder that once the legions learn Cesar can be made elsewhere than in Rome, they will select their own Cesar. It’s the reason the military should be under the control of the civilian government.