Wrong is Right
The Man With the Deadly Lens
For two of the last three decades, Richard Brooks’ media satire Wrong is Right was mostly forgotten. Then, in the wake of 9/11 and the wave of fear that followed, very gradually, a re-discovery began. Perhaps not on the level of a genuine cult following (although, hit and miss in tone and ramshackle in production, it is ideal fare for such protective endorsements) but certainly sufficient that multiple and audible gasps of amazement have been uttered at its prescience and topicality. The extent of one’s cynicism over the West’s current decade-long foray(s) into the Middle East, and the ways and means whereby we ended up there (including the much ridiculed – by our mainstream media – conspiracy end of the spectrum), may colour just how “on the nose” one considers the film to be. But it would take an extremely blasé viewer not to reach a point where their jaw occasionally drops in recognition of how accurate aspects of it have proved.
Erika: Remember, you’ve gotta be seen. If it doesn’t happen on television, it means nothing.
Director Joe Dante, introducing a screening of the film in 2008 (also attended by John Saxon, who played Homer Hubbard), observed that he had seen it on its 1982 release but it had little impact on him.
It just struck everybody as an impossible scenario… this president that goes to war for ratings… it just didn’t seem to gel, so nobody took it seriously.
A quarter of century later, however:
It really is an unusual picture in that so much of it has come true. I saw it a couple of years ago and I was amazed. It was a post 9/11 viewing and it really did amaze me how much of this movie that we thought was so outlandish in 1982 seems like a documentary now… The idea of the film climaxing with bombs at the World Trade Centre; the confluence of stuff just seemed to be kind of astonishing to me… It’s a really fascinating, unknown movie.
To an extent, the foresight of the film may belie its intent as a satire of media whorishness rather than a map of US policy and manipulation to come in the 2000s. Certainly, a film replete with depictions of figurehead Islamic terrorists, suicide bombers, attacks on the World Trade Centre, the dangers of rogue nukes, a black/female vice/president, a God-fearing President who calls for prayer before meetings, the threat of WMDs used as leverage for declarations of war, the acceptability of pre-emptive strikes, and the pervasiveness of the surveillance society, is likely to find itself considered for the world it has envisioned rather than, necessarily, the main point it was trying to make.
David Foster, at website Permission to Kill, considers the Wrong is Right in terms of star Sean Connery’s filmography. He draws a distinct conclusion from the more modern reappraisal that the film has received. Whilst recognising the picture’s more prophetic side, Foster feels that it is now very dated:
The difference today is that the internet, as a form of mass communication, has taken over from television. Terrorists no longer need television or a reporter to announce their views or perform an act of rebellion. Today you can do it yourself and put it on YouTube… That’s not to say the film is not entertaining. It is, and carried very easily by Connery’s charisma, but the themes it explores; terrorism and the world’s dependence on television is outdated. ‘It doesn’t happen unless it happens on TV’ doesn’t apply to a world where a person carrying a mobile phone can film the next ‘breaking’ news story. I am not saying that the film is soft either. It’s just that over the last twenty-five years, we the viewing public, have been ‘hardened’ by the real world. We do not shock as easily.
It is a cogent argument, and certainly the almost regal fashion in which Hale is granted access to the offices (or tents) of power of the great and (ahem) good of various nations was noted as somewhat far-fetched at the time of its cinema release (although Hale serves as both protagonist and a frequent narrative device when required to voice the film’s “message”). The question of who relies on what for news in the modern world continues to be mutable, however, and certainly not one where the film’s conjectures have been consigned to an anachronistic curiosity value. When it comes to what we, “the masses” believe, do we still not flock needily to a “trusted” news source?
Whilst the idea that terrorists are in thrall to reporters in order to appear on television may seem technologically outmoded, the essential mechanism remains in terms of the fastest and most effective means to find fame (as the huge ratings for the current wave of music talent shows has proved across the globe). And, while Foster highlights the means of communication, the film is as much about the method, which is where many who have discovered it in recent years have found resonance and sudden relevance.
Indeed, one of today’s enduring debates is how much we can believe what the mainstream media filters down to us. This may amount to Tony Blair scoffing at “conspiracy theorists” when wishing to protect himself from the WMD debacle or the instantaneous debate that sprang up over whether Osama Bin Laden really was killed in Pakistan, or was dead already. In this respect, the internet’s influence does become palpable, as mainstream media increasingly has little choice but to report on a story if it has reached a certain level of internet saturation. Of course, the lack of discussion of the repercussions of an event such as at Fukushima raises other questions, not about the quest for ratings above all else but the idea that there can be independence of the state from the subject matter chosen to report on.
This is nothing new, and the instinct of we, the public, is often to take comfort in the safest or most palatable version of events (those presented by the still monolithic media outlets) rather than risk the polemic and partiality (or potentially the sheer confusion of the rabbit warren of conflicting “facts” in that micro-world) of agenda-fuelled and perhaps dubiously sourced alternative news sites. (Which is not to make an argument that there is anything inherently more respectable in the mainstream media, only that it does tend to offer a more digestible comfort zone.) Wrong is Right does not really touch on the connections between big business and government (and the connections between big media and the same), other than to recognise that presidential candidate Mallory can find out as much about any given topic as the President himself (if not more). If that missing link in Wrong is Right’s cynicism is absent, then it is more than made up for in its depiction of a President who is at best peripherally aware of what is occurring about him, who is only really concerned about the same when it threatens his office, and who is a puppet to those in government who know more and control more than he does.
The 1982 Release
Interviewed about his book on Richard Brooks, Tough as Nails, Douglas K Daniel commented:
His last two films, “Wrong is Right” in 1982 and “Fever Pitch” in 1985, were disasters, but for different reasons. “Wrong is Right” was a satire, and Richard hadn’t tried that before. I don’t think he had the right mindset for that subtle blend of humor and irony…
Wrong is Right definitely has an uncertain tone, prone at times to veering into broader Airplane!-style gags that raise the question of whether there was even any serious consideration given to verisimilitude. We first see Connery accompanied by the strains of the Lawrence of Arabia theme (previously used to similar effect in Roger Moore’s The Spy Who Loved Me), suggesting that the film may have a nudge-nudge, in-on-the-joke, attitude to its audience. But for the most part (demands made by terrorists include a ban on “pantyhose, chewing gum, alcohol and disco dancing”, the CIA report on Rafeeq reveals that he is “paranoid megalomaniac. Highly dangerous, suicidal, chronic masturbator”) the film steers clear of broader Zucker-brothers-esque gags, and indeed those present sit uneasily with the tendency of characters to launch into polemical speeches to justify their (and the filmmaker’s) identification of the hypocrisy that envelops the worlds of politics and media.
Christopher Bray (in Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man) recounts that Connery was heavily involved in the process of getting the film made. Noting the loose plotting and the difficulty in following the film, he comments that it is “one of those movies in which you’re constantly asking questions like “how did we get here?” or “Did I miss something?”
How much of the blame for this chaotic picture attaches to Connery? More than might otherwise have done, since having insisted… that he have sight of the script long before the cameras rolled, Connery subsequently found himself working on rewrites with Brooks. Since the draft of the script Connery was sent would have made for a movie of about three and a half hours, it will be appreciated that writer/director and actor had their work cut out for them.
Bray feels that this cutting may have fatally compromised the finished film. Of Connery’s attitude to it, he notes;
Nonetheless, while Connery has always been happy to blame directors and writers for any flops he has found himself involved in, he went on defending Wrong is Right long after it had bombed at the box office.
Whatever the faults of the film itself, its reception was not helped by lacklustre promotion on the part of the studio, Columbia. The US poster for the film announced, “In a moment, World War III… But first, a word from our sponsor” followed by over-explanation of the plot in a sure sign of uncertainty over how to market the picture. John Saxon commented in 2008:
I knew people who were the publicists… and they said, “What are we going to do with this? It’s just too far out.” And that’s what happened for all these years… It got buried, I mean literally buried.
Interviewed in Backstory 2: Interviews with screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, Brooks had this to say about his failures:
There are parts of me in most of the movies I worked on. Each of them reminds me of something close. I like the weak ones, the unsuccessful ones, sometimes as much as the others. Each one means a part of my life.
Contemporary reviews of the film (including David Derby in The New Yorker and Vincent Canby in The New York Times) highlighted Brooks’ difficulties with comedy and what they considered to be a shallowness of understanding of the themes being addressed. Also common was a compare-and contrast with Dr Strangelove (not discouraged by the nuclear bomb detonating behind Sean Connery on the film’s US poster), against which Brooks’ film was inevitably found wanting.
The film’s strongest allusion to Dr Strangelove is the presence of gung-ho General Wombat, paralleling Strangelove’s George C Scott’s General Buck Turgidson. The other nod to it is when Lockwood hears from the Soviet premier as the panic escalates (“How’s the weather in Moscow?”).
But, with sights fixed on a very different subject for satire, its forbear might be more correctly identified as Sidney Lumet’s Network, which had taken on television’s appetite for ratings and sensation at the expense of content six years earlier.
The film – In Retrospect
Patrick Hale: It was a time when Outer Space was filled with incredible machines whose telescopic eyes and ears witnessed our most sensitive secrets. Information that could and did change the fate of nations. It was a time when no one on Earth could hide from technology. No people, no continent, no one was safe from spy satellites. It all could have happened in the recent past, or the present, or even in the near future. But it didn’t. It did happen in that elusive time between now and later. That time when dark is light, when down is up, when foul is fair, when wrong is right.
Patrick Hale’s (Sean Connery) rather eggy monologue sets the scene, which places the viewer in a non-specific time, despite the best efforts of composer Artie Kane (who previously worked on Brooks’ Looking for Mr Goodbar) to tell us this is most definitely the early 1980s.
Via Hale’s report on a new TV show gripping the nation, where for a price the public can work out their violent fantasies, it quickly becomes clear that Brooks is uneasy over how to handle the tone. The footage from the TV show is not so much heavy-handed as bludgeoning, tilted towards broad, madcap laughs and commentary on public (lack of) taste. The one resonant element is the “15 minutes of fame” bargain that is part of the show, a readily identifiable precursor to the reality TV of Big Brother and Pop Idol/X-Factoretc. Brooks does get to his point eventually, though.
Patrick Hale: Is it entertainment or therapy? Is violence becoming the National pastime? Is murder as American as apple pie?
Hale’s voice over introduces the plot proper, announcing that King Awad (Ron Moody, in an era where white Brit thesps playing non-Caucasians had not yet become a politically incorrect no-no; see also Alec Guinness in A Passage to India) has summoned him to his country:
Patrick Hale: His home was a tent where he lived alone, prayed alone and listened to his desert voices. A few years ago the mystical voices, prompted by American engineers of course, whispered the magic word “oil”. Oil.
Ostensibly this is Hale’s reportage for his news show, although such pronouncements about the covert activities of the US are presumably non-diegetic in content (he’s not likely to state as fact on the national news that his country has manipulated Awad into producing oil through a psyops operation). If Brooks intended this to be more of a standard film voice-over then he hasn’t made it clear to the audience. But, given that characters are prone to speechifying elsewhere, it is possible that he was not too concerned where such distinctions lay. (Connery’s final scene, of which more later, suggests a wanton disregard for verisimilitude as it cheerfully batters down the Fourth Wall.) Brooks makes his premise clear, though; this is a world where no action is out of bounds when it comes to wealth and power.
As Hale becomes immersed in the fractious politics of the country, the parallel response to events of those who live there is shown via television interviews. These are entirely condemnatory. but the cynicism of the interview subjects will prove to be more accurate than not. When journalist Sally Blake (Katherine Ross) is murdered, we hear “The woman is spying for the CIA”; all Americans are suspected of spying. Later it is revealed that the accusation was correct (Ross is also the film’s nominal heroine, but discarded more quickly than Janet Leigh in Psycho).
Apart from Hale, the film spends much of its time with President Lockwood (George Grizzard). His advisory personnel include Chief of Staff Hacker (Dean Stockwell), General Wombat (Robert Conrad, who “heads our taskforce fighting terrorism”; so, like Jack Bauer then) Jack Philindros (G D Spradlin), Head of the CIA and Vice-President Ford (Rosalind Cash – a female African-American who appears so named just to get a cheap joke in later).
Lockwood presents himself as a caution-first premier. He is attacked on that basis by presidential candidate Mallory (Leslie Nielsen). Mallory comments, “The Arabs raised the price of oil four times in two years. And what are we going to do about it?” Mallory’s position is that Middle Eastern states should be compelled to provide oil to the US, preferably through declaration of war. A stance that will ring bells for anyone who considers the same attitude to have been dressed in the rhetoric of regime change in more recent times.
Lockwood’s advisor, Reverend Billy Bob Harper (Tom McFadden), is also introduced. The character eerily prefigures Bush Jr’s overt religiosity (and, as with Bush Jr, it is not an outlook that the rest of his staff necessarily hold). Lockwood’s comment that the country is facing a national crisis “And Billy Bob is going to lead us in prayer, just like before a ball game” elicits Philindros’ reply that there isn’t time for this.
President Lockwood: No time for God, Jackie?
Brooks enjoys poking sticks at the conflicting allegiances required by the US governing apparatus, be it to God, country or family, depending on the current priority involved.
Later, in a sequence played for laughs that 24 would regularly repeat stony-faced, the presidential aides each call their nearest and dearest and warn them of an imminent terrorist attack (the New York Governor is not to be told of the threat as “he’s supporting Mallory”), immediately after they were instructed not to.
Lockwood: Now, look! Some of us have got family in New York. And in America, family comes first. But not before God and Country. So stay off the phone and don’t start a panic.
At a training camp in North Africa, uber-terrorist Rafeeq (Henry Silva) is to be found. He’s our Bin Laden bogeyman for the purposes of the film. Rafeeq is identified as a clear foe of the US (as Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein will be in the aftermath of 9/11). His soldiers are fanatics, “Ready, willing to die for their cause, even commit suicide on command. Especially on television.” To emphasise his culpability, we learn he was responsible for two airliners exploding over Italy ( “no demands, pure acts of vengeance”).
Rafeeq is to take delivery of two atom bombs, which he will detonate the following day. Whilst the idea of rogue nuclear warheads has been common currency for movies since the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was an era of more limited proliferation (whatever the ins and outs of the “nuke lie”*). So the scheme no doubt appeared more fantastical to a 1982 audience (as perhaps the plot suggested by the conclusion of the film does still). It is Rafeeq and Awad’s plan to “purify Islam” together through use of the nukes. When Hale, interviewing Rafeeq, objects, Brooks goes into grandstanding mode, taking swipes at the hypocrisy of the West’s use of the word “terrorism”. Rafeeq’s view is one that holds increasing currency in relation to the decisions and ensuing justifications of Bush Jr, Blair et al.
Rafeeq: To you, what is terrorism?
Patrick Hale: Innocent victims, political murders.
Rafeeq: Like the Belgians in the Congo. Like the French in Algeria. The Japanese in Manchuria. Like the British against the Americans. Like the Irish against the British. Like Mussolini against Ethiopia. Like Hitler against the Jews. Like the Jews against us. Like the Americans used a bomb in Hiroshima. You mean terrorism like that?
Brooks is more than willing to use his characters act as a mouthpiece for his beliefs, even if he runs the risk of his film appearing somewhat trite by doing so.
A pre-emptive strike is mooted in response to the threat of Awad and Rafeeq, but Lockwood does not want to go down in history for starting World War III.
Hacker: Good guys never shoot first.
Wombat: Why not?
Of course, the passing years have seen political language alter to the extent that pre-emptive action has been beaten into a respectable (even using language to suggest it is honourable) shape.
Lockwood and Philindros then discuss assassinating Awad, with Lockwood unwilling to give the order on the record and Philindros keen not to be (or have his agency be) the fall guy. So Philindros secretly records the conversation. Lockwood instructs Hacker to destroy the official record, summoning memories of Watergate. “Do you think I want a black Ford in my future” (the cheap joke I mentioned earlier regarding the Vice President). Brooks keeps events moving quickly (perhaps too quickly), establishing an environment of political manoeuvring and loyalties of convenience.
When Awad is disposed of (reported as suicide), a montage of reveals demonstrations against the USA in the wake of his death and that “Rafeeq’s revolutionary council will control this country by nightfall”. Lockwood learns that Philindros has thrown him to the wolves, releasing his tape of the President’s execution order. The President (whom Hale knows personally, like almost everyone of status in the film) defends himself to Hale, arguing Justifiable Homicide (not a great distance from Obama’s pronouncements in respect of the raid that resulted in Bin Laden’s death) and aware that he must make the public believe this.
In a cute attempt to barefacedly appeal to voter sentimentality, Lockwood meets the Press with his dog, Scruffy, and observes, “Did you realise that “dog” spelt backwards is “God”? Alright, fire away!” Mallory, Nielsen deadpan as ever, recognises the fickle nature of the voting public.
Lockwood: I want people to know the truth, the whole truth. It’s the American way. I take full responsibility for King Ibn Awad’s removal from office.
Mallory(Listening to the broadcast): It’s the dog that worries me.
By converging the various plot threads to revolve around the nuclear suitcases, Brooks unfortunately ends up with a rather straight thriller for much of the rest of the film’s duration (even though the new situation is ripe for farce).
Initially placated due to acceding to power, Rafeeq decides to obtain the bombs after all (“No bombs, no proof. Get the bombs”) when Hale reveals the terrorist’s plan on live TV and states that he can prove it. Simultaneously, with Lockwood’s poll ratings plummeting, the President decides that he must obtain the briefcases as proof of Rafeeq’s plan. Mallory is also attempting to purchase the nukes. Hale wants to locate them too but is accused of chequebook journalism by his boss when he asks for the money to purchase them.
Patrick Hale: What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars for Nixon to apologise coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Esienhower and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calles, and for breakfast served up the Mai Lai Massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on primetime! You paid a hundred thousand dollars for that! Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism? (Singing) We’re in showbusiness, baby! Make ‘em laugh, Make ‘em cry, make ‘em buy. And buy and buy. We peddle disaster and violence. It’s commercial!… We’re in the entertainment business. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you call it that.
Like Rafeeq before him, Hale delivers Brooks’ tirade against hypocrisy, and the director loses something in failing to allow the satire to speak for itself.
After the President escapes an attempt on his life by a suicide bomber, the country is gripped by panic over where the next strike will be. As broad as Wombat’s characterisation is, what he says sounds almost understated in light of the post-9/11 fear of imminent terrorist attack by someone, anyone.
Wombat: Terrorism in the streets. Terrorism in the sky. Terrorism by kids, by gangs, by governments. When the rats take over, call the exterminator and blast off. We have the men and the means to get the job done. Turn us loose, Mr President, and we’ll blow them all to hell and gone.
And in the micro-analysis, 24-hour news of today that sits around and waits for developments in leading stories, the attitude of Hale’s boss Harvey (Robert Webber) rings true. He remains consistently unapologetic in pursuing his primary goal:
Harvey: This is bigger than the Kennedy act in Dallas. It’s for God’s sake bigger than the Super Bowl and its going to be bigger tomorrow.
Patrick Hale: Only if the human bomb tries it again.
Harvey: Let’s pray for a double-header.
Rafeeq threatens to set off two nukes in New York unless Lockwood resigns (this threat is delivered to Hale). Hale protests to Harvey that the public should not informed of his demands on the grounds that that the resulting panic would be counter-productive. Thus, the film finds itself ironically supporting the interests of government (whereby the line is that sometimes it is for the people’s own good that information is concealed from them). I doubt that this was Brooks’ intention, as was in aid of highlighting his point that media should know its boundaries. Harvey is, after all, thinking about this only in terms of a ratings coup. Hale (again as the writer’s mouthpiece) is given a speech (visually supplemented) regarding the devastating effects of a nuclear detonation in New York.
At this point that General Wombat expresses his doubt that Rafeeq even possesses nukes.
Philindros: We know who built those bombs. We know who tried to buy them. We know Rafeeq has them.
No one asks Philindros the natural follow-up question of who built them (if, indeed, there were ever actual bombs in Unger’s possession) but the inference is clear in the closing sequences of the film; the CIA triggered events (and, therefore, the US built the bombs). This is entirely consistent with Brooks’ voices in the desert opening; even figures of stature (even the US President) are just pawns in a bigger (murkier) picture where the only clear agenda is money.
Nearing Rafeeq’s deadline, Lockwood considers resignation.
Wombat: Don’t do it, Mr President. You’ll hate it.
Ford: Mr President, if you resign a woman, a black woman, will be in the White House. And she won’t be serving dinner.
Lockwood: Congratulations, Madam President.
Ford: If I’m not shot before I’m sworn in.
However, in a virtual deus ex machina, the bombs are found atop the World Trade Centre.
Patrick Hale: Convenient.
Philindros: Oh, I’d say lucky.
Patrick Hale: I thought, for a while, the CIA had arranged the suitcases. Like King Awad’s suicide.
Philindros: Mr Hale, we only try to do what’s right.
Patrick Hale: Even when it’s wrong?
Philindros: If it’s good for America, it can’t be wrong. Right?
As a result of the discovery, the now justified Lockwood can legitimately attack Rafeeq’s country and at the same time boost his popularity ratings.
Lockwood: These atom bombs on our land constitute an act of war. Undeclared war, unprovoked war, started by the bloodiest terrorist of modern history. By Rafeeq the Hun of Hagreb.
Cut to Rafeeq, with two suitcases on his desk.
Rafeeq: What war? What bombs? What the hell? Is he crazy?
The ending implies that Rafeeq had no intention of setting the bombs off, and that it was the CIA that planted the devices at the top of the World Trade Centre to trigger a “legitimate” war with a Middle Eastern country for its oil (and as an added perk boosting the popularity of an ailing President). Now, does that sound familiar in respect of the darker 9/11 conspiracy theories?
Mallory: You did it, you finally did it!
Lockwood: We’re not going to take it anymore.
Mallory: You hit ‘em.
Lockwood: You bet!
Mallory: Hit ‘em with everything you got! And, but for God’s sake, don’t hit those oil wells!
Finally, we see ever-intrepid reporter Hale in a plane over the country with General Wombat.
Wombat: What we’ve got here is war. Now you’re here for one reason. No matter what happens, nothing happens until it happens on television.
Hale: Right, but before you take the oil wells, remember. We’re taking a three minute commercial break.
(Pulls off the rug he’s been wearing all film and puts helmet on)
Wombat: Right. Now let’s kick ass.
(Jumps out of plane)
Of Connery’s character in the film, Christopher Bray rightly observes:
Confusingly, Brooks never really constructs an attitude toward Patrick Hale. Is Connery playing the voice of integrity in a world ever more crazed by the PR game, or is he playing a ham actor on the make? Nobody seems to know.
As we have seen, Hale is prone to sermonising when Brooks needs him to. But in the last scene of the film we clearly see the “ham actor on the make”, integrity standing aside for an exclusive on the taking of the oil wells.
Simultaneously, in a cheeky act from Brooks and Connery, Hale’s discarding of his hairpiece draws attention to the artifice of the film just before the credits roll. They just about get away with it, partly because an almost wanton indifference has been displayed over how it is perceived by its audience. And partly because Connery/Hale (the face of the media in the film) has been deceiving us throughout (Connery with hair will get bigger “ratings” than Connery without) which, after all, is one of the picture’s main themes.
Wrong is Right emerges a brave, bold mess of a film. It can’t hope to claim the crown of a neglected classic, but there is too much intelligence and inventiveness to merit continued obscurity. Uncertain of tone yet prophetic of vision, it deserves wider rediscovery.
*Addendum 24/06/23: I was chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).
Release & Reception
US release: 16 April 1982
The film was a flop, taking only $3.6 million at US box office. It opened on the same weekend as Conan the Barbarian (which entered at the top slot), and lodged itself in fifth position on the chart. The previous reigning champ was Porky’s. Wrong is Right spent only two weeks in the top 10.
The British title, The Man With the Deadly Lens, was used after the film’s US box office failure, with a tagline of, “Only Patrick Hale can prevent a desperate president, the Head of the CIA, a trigger happy general, terrorists, an arms dealer, and religious fanatics from destroying our world. But he has other things on his mind.” The British poster also made it resemble a Bond film.
Charles McCarry’s The Better Angels (1979) is the source novel. McCarry was a former CIA officer.
This was Richard Brooks’ final film as producer, and penultimate as writer/director (the last was Fever Pitch – 1985)
Cast & Crew
Richard Brooks’ (1912-92) writing and directing career spanned five decades and included Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry (for which he won Best Screenplay Oscar), Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr Goodbar. Brooks’ storytelling was primarily message-driven, and he considered truth to be the key value in his work. He frequently tackled hot button issues in his films; juvenile delinquency in Blackboard Jungle, the death penalty in In Cold Blood, bigotry in Something of Value. He had a reputation for being temperamental and difficult to work with. He recovered from the critical and commercial failure of dream project Lord Jim with hit western The Professionals and the In Cold Blood. His last success was with Diane Keaton-starrer Looking for Mr Goodbar.
Sean Connery, a little-known Scottish actor, was in something of a career slump when he made Wrong is Right. Bond was 10 years behind him (and a year in the future) and he’d appeared in a string of underperformers including Cuba and Meteor. A supporting role in Time Banditswas the one bright spot in the early ‘80s, with career resurgence spearheaded by Highlander, The Name of the Rose and The Untouchables another four years away.
Charles McCarry, a writer of American spy fiction, was a speechwriter for the Eisenhower administration and worked for the CIA. His best known character is CIA spy Paul Christopher, who appeared in a series of his books. Wrong is Right was loosely based on his novel The Better Angels.
Katherine Ross was 15 years beyond her defining role in The Graduate when she appeared in this film. Roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Stepford Wives were the high points in the intervening years. More recently she appeared as Donnie’s psychiatrist in Donnie Darko.
George Grizzard (1928-2007) was best known for his stage and television work. He appeared in many TV series, including episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Murder, She Wrote and Law & Order.
Robert Conrad was a regular on TV series Hawaiian Eye and The Wild Wild West.
G D Spradlin (1920-2011) mixed TV and film roles, but didn’t begin acting until his 40s. Films included Zabriskie Point, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and Ed Wood.
John Saxon’s prolific is probably most recognised for his role in Enter the Dragon. He also appeared in A Nightmare on Elm Street and was a regular on Falcon Crest.
Henry Silva played himself in the “Bullshit or Not?” segment of Amazon Women on the Moon. A mainstay of TV and B-movies, he appeared in films as varied as The Manchurian Candidate and Alligator.
Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010), believe it or not, had a long career prior to Lieutenant Frank Drebin reinvented him as a deadpan comic genius. His best-known early role was as Commander Adams in Forbidden Planetand took copious television work in the decades that followed. He popped up in a couple of ‘70s disaster movies (The Poseidon Adventure, Day of the Animals) before helping to deconstruct the genre as Dr Rumack in Airplane!
Dean Stockwell’s most iconic role was Sam in Quantum Leap, but he started out as a child actor in the 1940s. His career really hit its stride (in terms of recognition and choice roles) in the 1980s, featuring in several David Lynch films and Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob.
Artie Kane composed mostly for television, working on shows that included The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, Dynastyand Matlock.
Fred J Koenekamp was cinematographer on a variety of films and television series, most notably The Man from UNCLE. Film work included Patton, Papillon, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, The Champ and The Amityville Horror.
Additional (Contemporary) Critics’ Comments
The Film Year Book Volume 2: Al Clark
One almost sympathised with the marketing men who made a brief misguided stab at flogging this in Britain as if it were a Bond spin-off. Like most of its minimal audience, they surely couldn’t help but be baffled by Brooks’ outrageously incoherent bilious blast against the way the world’s turning (atomic arms dealers, Arab terrorists, American opportunists and all). Connery’s the media man bemused by global conspiracy; virtually everyone else is a villain of some sort.
New York Magazine, 3/5/82
David Derby, refers to the spirit of Dr Strangelove…“a frenetic farce about terrorists, a mad Arab king, an arms smuggler, an ineffectual health-nut American president, a black female vice-president, nuclear blackmail, the perversion of TV journalism into entertainment and about a hundred other things, all central to the survival of our civilisation, that happen to be passing through the sorely troubled but shallow mind of writer-director Richard Brooks.
Brooks wants to be Stanley Kubrick, but his satirical thrusts at the craziness of international politics rapidly degenerate into clownishness, and he can’t restrain a natural blowhard’s temperament. The characters keep delivering themselves of Brooks’s patented jeremiads on violence, morality, showbusiness, and so on. Even the chief terrorist gets one. The movie jumps around so suddenly that we’re not always sure whether we’re in the Black Hole of Clacutta or Black Rock – the CBS headquarters on Sixth Avenue.
Variety (1982) (excerpt)
Wrong Is Right represents Richard Brooks’ shriek of protest at what he sees as the insane, downward spiral of world history over the past decade. Part political satire, part doomsday melodrama and part intellectual graffiti scribbled on the screen, film is impossible to pigeon-hole.
In a style simultaneously literal and surreal, Brooks takes potshots at the CIA, the FBI, presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan, the military, the Arabs, the oil crisis, international terrorists and television, among many targets.
Vincent Canby, NY Times, tore the film a new hole (1982):
Time Out (David Pirie)
Perhaps the oddest major Hollywood feature of 1982. Veering wildly between a quite well-written satire on the contemporary American political scene and a very ham-fisted nuclear blackmail thriller, its sheer eccentricity is quite engaging. Connery is excellent as a superstar TV reporter, but he deserves a better plot; and the adulation his character receives from Arab leaders seems as ridiculous as his network’s apparently effortless ability to transmit live anywhere, any time. Writer/director Brooks is on stronger ground when tilting at the extraordinary contradictions in America’s political morality, but his one major coup is to demonstrate just how good a TV performer Connery could indeed be.
Patrick Hale is a television reporter for network news channel WTN. Called by King Awad to an unnamed oil-rich Middle Eastern country, Hale meets journalist Sally Blake and en route they give a lift to arms dealer Helmet Unger, who is taking two suspicious briefcases to the King as a gift. Sally asks Hale to deliver a message to Homer Hubbard at the US Embassy while she meets with an Israeli contact. Sally and her contact are killed by a bomb before Hubbard can reach her. Hale meets with the King, who protests his innocence of Sally’s death. Hale gives Awad a camera as a present, which the King pricks his finger on.
The killing of Blake fuels further tensions between the US and the country. President Lockwood’s leadership is attacked on television by presidential candidate Mallory. It becomes evident that there are divisions amongst the presidential advisors (including Vice President Ford, Chief of Staff Hacker, General Wombat and CIA Head Philindros). The President learns from Philindros that terrorist Rafeeq is taking delivery of two nuclear devices which he plans to detonate; one in Jerusalem and the other in the US. Philindros further confirms that Blake was a CIA agent and that Rafeeq was behind her murder. Hale meets Rafeeq and learns that he had made an alliance with Awad to “purify Islam”. Informed of Awad’s involvement, Lockwood orders his assassination. Lockwood’s order is off the record but Philindros keeps his own taping of the instruction.
News of the King’s suicide is reported. There are further protests against the US and Rafeeq rises to power, replacing Awad. Hale escapes a bomb attack at WTN. Mallory informs Hale that Awad’s suicide tape is a fake and that the King was a victim of a “wet operation”. Philindros releases Lockwood’s executive order to the public and the President is forced into a damage limitation exercise, claiming his act was one of justifiable homicide. A media frenzy ensues, as Lockwood loses support. Attempts are made by Lockwood (to prove his act was necessary), Rafeeq, Mallory and Hale to secure the undelivered suitcases. Following the death of Unger, it appears that Rafeeq has secured the bombs, amid reports of rising oil prices and a plummeting dollar.
A suicide bomber attempts to kill Lockwood at a rally, which results in a massive ratings success for HTV. Rafeeq contacts Hale, demanding Lockwood’s resignation and trial or he will detonate the bombs in New York. Knowing the panic that will result, and the inadequacy of evacuation procedures, Hale persuades his boss not to broadcast the tape. A frantic search for the bombs ensues. They are found just in the nick of time, perched atop the World Trade Centre. Hale observes to Philindros that this is very convenient. The CIA man does not respond directly to Hale’s suggestion that the whole thing was planned by his agency.
War is declared by Lockwood in response to Rafeeq’s act. However, we see that a mystified Rafeeq is still in possession of “his” suitcases. Mallory congratulates Lockwood, encouraging him to hit the country with everything he’s got, but to avoid hitting the oil wells.
(See also the additional critics’ comments section above)
Richard Brooks interview
Interview with Douglas K Daniel (author of Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks) by John Greco
Joe Dante (introducing the film on youtube -14/8/08)
Christopher Bray, Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man (p232-235)
Bray concludes, “For all the flaws, the picture is one of Connery’s best from the eighties, the movie in which he found a new way of interrogating his starry status and finding it wanting.
Pat McGilligan, Backstory 2: Interviews with screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s