Rubicon: A 1970s-Style Conspiracy Thriller
Rubicon begins with Will Travers (James Badge Dale) discovering connecting clues in multiple crossword puzzles spread across several major newspapers on the same day. “Our three branches of government are here—legislative, executive, judicial,” he explains to his direct supervisor, David Hadas. The problem is that there’s a fourth branch alluded to in the puzzles as well. “What or who does that fourth leaf represent?” Travers continues. “And what’s the message?” Hadas tells him forget about it, but is then killed the next morning in a freak train accident.
Three Days of the Condor has a similar opening. Instead of crossword puzzles, however, Robert Redford discovers clues in an obscure spy novel. Upon reporting his findings to his superiors, he is likewise told that his deductions are meaningless but his fellow team members are systematically murdered afterwards as well. Redford’s character survives the massacre by literally being “out to lunch,” only to then find himself on the run when he realizes that his findings point to a “secret CIA” within the actual clandestine organization.
Another 1970s classic, All the President’s Men, details real-life newspaper reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the Watergate burglary. Although it doesn’t lead to the discovery of a “secret government” within the Nixon administration, it does reveal layers of corruption and cover ups in the White House nonetheless. Despite containing a well-known historical narrative that ends with Richard Nixon’s resignation, director Alan J. Pakula was still able to create a riveting film by concentrating on the “connect the dots” approach of the two Washington Post journalists, the potential danger to their physical wellbeing and the secretive antics of mysterious government mole Deep Throat.
Rubicon mirrors the styles of both Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. Will Travers, for instance, eventually deduces that David Hadas was murdered and that the crossword puzzle clues are somehow relevant. His subsequent under the radar investigation is thus another “connect the dots” effort which likewise puts Travers’ life in danger. While it was merely hinted that Nixon and his cohorts were bugging Woodward and Bernstein, however, there are no doubts in Rubicon as multiple listening devices are discovered by Travers in both his apartment and office.
Will Travers also has his own version of Deep Throat in new boss Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard). “I’ll confirm what you get, try to keep you on the right track,” the original Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men. “But that’s all.” Although it is apparent that Ingram knows a great deal more about the conspiracy at the heart of Travers’s investigation, he is equally reluctant to reveal too much. “I’m not going to be participating in this directly,” Ingram informs Travers. “I’m too high profile. But I can be helpful. When I’m able, I’ll point you in the right direction.”
The Rubicon conspiracy involves three separate storylines that emerge in the preliminary stages of the series but in the end intertwine into one complete tapestry. In addition to Will Travers’ personal inquiry into the death of David Hadas, there are Katherine Rhumor’s attempts at making sense out of her husband Tom’s suicide and the investigation of an al-Quaida terrorist by a Travers-led team of analysts at the American Policy Institute. Those three seemingly unrelated narratives all tie back to a cabal of rich and powerful men who grew up together on Fishers Island, New York. In classic conspiracy theory fashion, the group has been influencing world events for both financial gain and to dictate US foreign policy for decades.
With the exception of All the President’s Men, the narratives of 1970s conspiracy thrillers end with the conspirators escaping justice. In The Parallax View, Warren Beatty is ultimately set-up as the fall guy for the assassination of a presidential candidate and then killed by the police while trying to escape, taking his proof of a conspiracy to the grave with him. In yet another classic film of the decade, The Conversation, surveillance expert Gene Hackman is placed under surveillance himself by the conspiring murderers of a corporate CEO, thus putting his own life in danger if he ever attempts to reveal the truth. The message of these movies appears to be that one individual, no matter how righteous, is no match for a superior force armed with money, power and influence.
Rubicon ends in a similar fashion. In the very last scene, Will Travers finally confronts chief conspirator Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) and tells him that he has all the pieces necessary to expose the truth. “Make your report,” Spangler responds. “Knock ’em dead. I’m sure it will make for very exciting reading. Skullduggery in high places and all that. Do you really think anyone is going to give a shit?” The line is eerily similar to the end of Three Days of the Condor when Robert Redford reveals that he has given the New York Times all the information he’s gathered regarding the “secret CIA” within the CIA.
“How do you know they’ll print it?” an agent aware of the conspiracy rhetorically replies.
Rubicon might not make viewers reach for a bowl of popcorn like contemporary action thrillers, but it does engage its audience and makes one think in the process nonetheless. During an era that often travels at a breakneck speed, the AMC drama is a welcome throwback to a different time period that might not be so different after all.