It is the near future, and The United States has drawn up a peace treaty with The Soviet Union for an unconditional nuclear disarmament. But not everyone is happy with what should by all appearances signal the end of the Cold War, and the nation is divided as to whether President Lyman (Fredric March) is making the correct decision for them or not, indeed, his approval rating has dipped to an all-time low despite his assurances that he can make the threat of atomic conflict a thing of the past. One of the loudest voices of protest comes from General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who seems to be rallying dissent wherever he goes with his grave warnings - what can he be planning?
During the Kennedy administration, Hollywood tackled politics with an enthusiasm it had rarely seen before, turning out a number of hot button thrillers and dramas on those topics, though the ones that caught the attention were about the hottest topic of all: was the world to be brought to the brink of destruction by nuclear arms? These think pieces dressed up as movie entertainment seemed to tail off as the nineteen-sixties progressed and the landscape changed after President Kennedy's assassination, and the musings that sinister forces were at work in the echelons of power began to be relegated to conspiracy theories, initially with some justification - not so much later on.
As conspiracy theory became the default mode for popular political thinking, the paranoia predicted by films like this one truly taking hold to grip the public imagination despite often with fanciful evidence to support it, leaving actual conspiracies hiding in plain sight and able to be played out depending on what you were prepared to swallow or reject. Was it possible a military coup could be planned in the most powerful country in the world? After the Kennedy killing, and others like it, the feeling was not only was it possible, but it might genuinely be happening, certainly among the left leaning views, though as time went on the theories became prevalent amidst the right wing.
Was this ironic, considering the bad guys in these sixties efforts were rabidly on the right themselves? What had become so attractive to the conservatives from what was often a liberal, left-leaning way of seeing the world? Films like Seven Days in May promoted their villains, intentionally or not, as far more powerful than the counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum, and Lancaster here was superb in rendering his General as a voice of apparent reason when in effect what he was proposing was insanity that would only lead to mass destruction. It was an excellent performance, though intriguingly he had to be persuaded into it by his friend and colleague Kirk Douglas, who took the dove role as Colonel Casey, the man who realises what Scott is scheming.
Originally, Douglas was to play Scott, but preferred the hero part, and the structure of the film under John Frankenheimer's direction focused on him for the first hour, then Lancaster for the second, an economical use of their enormous star wattage that sustained what could have been a succession of conversations conducted with varying degrees of tension. Which is what it was, and though the source novel was one of those taking a plausible approach by basing its plot in facts from recent history, it was perhaps easier to accept that a potential coup was not going to succeed - though in Britain the following decade, precisely such a conspiracy was planned, so Seven Days in May was not quite as farfetched in concept than it might appear on the surface. Believe it or not, it was the acting that carried it, a collection of excellent character actors in support of Douglas and Lancaster, who of course were the pillars on which the construction rested. Not as flashy as this director's other classics, and it does end abruptly, but thrillers this smart could be relished. Very fine music by Jerry Goldsmith.