The real life inspiration behind movie conspiracy theories

We delve into the real life conspiracy theories that inspired some of the most mysterious films

Conspiracy theories have fuelled Hollywood for decades. And you don't necessarily have to be a tin foil hat-wearing paranoid loon, convinced that the CIA are reading your thoughts to enjoy them. Or do you? With Jeremy Renner taking over from Matt Damon in the new Bourne film, 'The Bourne Legacy' (out this week), it's time to look at some of the classic moments in conspiracy theory cinema. Some might have more basis in fact that you might think...

JFK

The conspiracy:
When Oliver Stone explored the investigation of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who worked on the JFK assassination case, he found that it implied Lyndon Johnson was conspiring in a coup d'etat with the CIA to have Kennedy murdered. Garrison suggested that it was the work of multiple gunmen and multiple conspirators linked to a sinister 'military industrial complex', which objected to JFK pulling the US out of Vietnam and moving towards détente in the Cold War.

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Fact or fiction?

The official investigation conducted by the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in gunning down the president, and that Jack Ruby also acted alone when he shot Oswald two days later. But Stone himself described the film as a 'counter-myth' to what he deemed the 'fictional myth’ peddled by the Warren Commission.

Fact vs fiction... a scene from JFK (Copyright: REX)



Much of Garisson's work has since been discredited. Critics have claimed he used unscrupulous methods involving bribery and blackmail. He has been called ‘crazy by some, and crooked by others' according to JFK expert and biographer Anthony Summers, but this may only strengthen his position in conspiracy theorist circles.

All The President's Men

The conspiracy:
Five men were caught trying to steal documents and plant listening devices in the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate complex, and discovered to be working for Republican President Nixon's re-election committee. Initially Nixon denied knowledge, but was forced to hand over tapes from a recording system set up in his own offices at the White House, which proved his complicity in the crime.

Fact or fiction?
Fact. As fact as fact can be. Not only did Nixon stand down, but he would have been impeached had it not been for a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford. In the film, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who lifted the lid on the conspiracy with the help of an FBI insider code named Deep Throat.

Real?... All The President's Men (Copyright: REX)

The Conversation

The conspiracy:
The shadowy world of surveillance was thrown wide open in Francis Ford Coppola's masterful 'The Conversation', set in a world of hidden bugs, coded messages and murder. Gene Hackman's reclusive surveillance expert finds himself thrown into a world of guilt after he finds a conversation he has recorded may result in the death of a couple.

Fact or fiction?
The fiction is, indeed, fiction, but its basis is very much in fact.
Coppola later revealed his shock on realising that the real listening equipment they used in the film was the same as that used by Nixon's people during Watergate. Released the same year as Watergate blew up, Coppola also recognises the leg-up the scandal gave the film, though the script itself was written long before, in the mid-60s, and it was some months after the film was released that Nixon would actually resign.

Capricorn One

The conspiracy:
A manned mission to Mars has to be aborted due to a faulty life support system. But rather than publicly fail, the rocket goes up empty, with the astronauts blackmailed into pretending to be in space from a distant studio in a remote army base. When the re-entry goes badly wrong, the crew realise their numbers are pretty much up.

Fact or fiction?

There are echoes of moon landing conspiracies at work here, so tin foil hats at the ready. Scores of 'experts' have stepped up with their two cents on how the moon landings could not have happened.
Inconsistencies with shadows in the pictures, identical backgrounds, issues over exposure to radiation, a fluttering flag on the windless moon – all these and legions more, including the political and technological motivations behind fakery, clog the web. They'll be saying the Curiosity isn't really on Mars next...

Mission to Mars... Capricorn One (Copyright: REX)

The Parallax View

The conspiracy:
When a presidential candidate is assassinated, plucky newswoman Lee Carter seeks the truth, finding that witnesses are slowly being killed off. After she is, erm, killed off (sorry), the mantle is passed to her news reporter colleague, the dashing Warren Beatty. He discovers a sinister corporation is training assassins to carry out politically motivated murders.

Fact or fiction?
Dubious. At best. It's a case of the JFK theories to the power 10. In this world, even the lowliest backbencher would be a target for some ludicrously convoluted 'accident' for coughing too loudly in the senate. Director Alan J. Pakula's next project, ‘All The President’s Men’, would handle conspiracy in a much more realistic fashion, because, unlike this outing, it wasn't all completely made up.

The Bourne Trilogy

The conspiracy:
Black ops type Jason Bourne is brainwashed as part of the mysterious Treadstone behaviour modification programme into becoming a merciless killer by his own government, but on awakening from his training, he goes after the people who have the answers in a brutal, camera-jerking orgy of bald, bone-crunching violence.

Fact or fiction?

Brainwashing comes from a Chinese term used to describe a coercive method of persuasion first used by the Maoist regime. It's claimed it was used by the Chinese during the Korean War on its prisoners in order to make them defect. It's also claimed that the CIA began a brainwashing research programme to develop 'practical techniques' in the 1950s. But the military has often called the theory a 'popular misconception'. But they would say that, wouldn't they.

Bourne again?... Matt Damon in 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (Copyright: REX)

Boys From Brazil

The conspiracy:
Based on Ira Levin's novel, Lawrence Olivier's Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman discovers a band of Third Reich war criminals is assembling in Paraguay, with Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele among their number. He soon discovers a plan already in progress to use Hitler's DNA to spawn his offspring.

Fact or fiction?

The cloning bit is clearly fiction, but other parts of the story have basis in fact. Olivier based his Nazi-hunting character on Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who went on to seek out Nazis all over the world following World War II. He met with Wiesenthal to ask for advice on the role. In 1979, just four months after the film was released, it emerged that Mengele had died while in Bertioga, Brazil, after years in hiding in South America, including a spell in Paraguay.

Syriana

The conspiracy:

Not necessarily for the casual cinema goer, 'Syriana' is a serpentine geo-political thriller heavily embedded in petroleum politics, CIA assassination plots, kidnapping, double agents and double crosses. There are powerhouse performances from all, including George Clooney as betrayed CIA man Bob Barnes and Matt Damon as an energy analyst embedded in the oil business.

Fact or fiction?
A bit of both. The screenplay was based on a lid-lifting memoir by Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer, which exposed corruption in Washington and documented a loss of CIA influence abroad in light of political and diplomatic blunders over the past few decades. It also exposed the dodgy deals surrounding middle eastern oil.