Thirty years ago, John Frankenheimer's political thriller "Seven Days in May" sent chills down moviegoers' spines. The film, which starred Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Fredric March, presented a grimly realistic depiction of a planned military coup of the U.S. government.

Now, HBO hopes viewers will be glued to their seats with its latest original movie, "The Enemy Within," a thriller based on "Seven Days in May."

"This is a suspense film," explains producer Robert Papazian. "I think that it has something to say--that what we take for granted in today's society is our freedom and democracy. We think it is a given. But I think this explores the fragile part of that (belief). I think it strengthens our beliefs in our system."

Set a few years in the future, "The Enemy Within" finds the United States' military power on the wane. Budgets have been cut and so has the military's influence. The military is not happy with its diminished role, believing the Armed Forces could not fight a major war if called upon.

The United States also has many enemies in the scenario: Iraq and Iran are now allies; North Korea is threatening to use its nuclear bombs. The President (Sam Waterston) is trying to maintain peace, but his Administration is shaky. In the midst of this crisis, Col. Mac Casey (Forest Whitaker), an officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discovers a Pentagon plot, led by his commanding officer Gen. Lloyd (Jason Robards), to overthrow the government.

This morning on an expansive sound stage in Valencia, Waterston, Whitaker and Dana Delany, who plays White House Chief of Staff Betsy Corcoran, are filming a pivotal scene in the Oval Office in which Casey discusses with them how to stop the coup. (The authentic replica of the Oval Office was used in the 1993 comedy "Dave.") British director Jonathan Darby rehearses his cast briefly before shooting the scene several times.

In "Seven Days in May," the President (Fredric March) found himself increasingly unpopular with the military because he wanted to sign a peace treaty with the Soviet Union. The military didn't believe the Soviets were in earnest in their desire for peace with the United States.

In the HBO version, Waterston explains during a break, it's "not specific about how the President got into a deep a hole (with the military), but he got in a very deep hole. We know that he wants to concentrate on getting rid of the debt and domestic issues, but to what extent he has done this--in a wise or sober fashion, or that he has gone too far--they won't say."

Waterston, who has played President Abraham Lincoln on TV and on Broadway, finds the film's premise frightening because he believes a coup could happen. "The thing I think is really scary is that the Army is so huge. I can't see quite what stops it from doing whatever it wants, except the citizenship of the soldiers. We never really had a big peacetime Army. I don't know if someone could get all the honest American citizens that are in the Army to think they were doing a good deed--doing something right for the United States. I don't really know if that makes it impossible for this to happen. I would like some reassurance, wouldn't you?"

Originally, "Enemy Within" was developed by executive producer Peter Douglas, son of Kirk Douglas, as a feature film for Columbia Pictures. That version, Douglas says, was closer in theme to the original.

"It was during the early '80s, at which time Reagan had come into office, damning the evil empire, the Soviet Union," Douglas says. "So, it was very much akin to the original movie. Then they made peace. They become friends and our picture died because it was so tied to the political arena."

When HBO became interested in the project, he says, "we began to develop it in a more contemporized direction." Maybe too contemporized.

Douglas acknowledges the political climate depicted in "Enemy Within" is striking a tad close to home these days with the military facing budget cuts and the combustible situations in North Korea, the Mideast and Bosnia.

"Our story is becoming frighteningly close not by virtue of the military takeover, but the parallels of what is going on in the government with the Congress turning on the President and the North Korea situation," Douglas says. "You suddenly are seeing these parallels coming up. We know it's fiction, but we begin to wonder if maybe we had an inside track."

The military, Douglas says, "views the threat (of war) today greater than it was during the Cold War, quite simply because you have more (enemies) and we don't know exactly who they are all. When you research it with people in the know, you find out there are significant concerns with the Iran-Iraq situation, despite the fact they have been warring at each other for years. You combine that with the issue of the (former) Soviet Union and the extreme poverty in that country. The hot commodity, which is readily available, is either intact nuclear warheads or plutonium. You suddenly have this propagation of nuclear threats, whereas before it was only the Soviet Union. You've got little bands of terrorists who could conceivably have a nuclear weapon. The military's big issue is that their budget has been cut."

Waterston finds the film's premise interesting because "you can think about it quite a bit and it doesn't fall apart, which makes it more scary. We could still blow up next week. My father (recently) turned 90, and when the Soviet Union came apart, I said, 'This is one of the most wonderful times I've ever lived through.' And he said, 'This is the scariest moment of my life.' And he'd been through World War I, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam."

"Enemy Within" marks the feature debut of director Darby, who directed the 1993 Oscar-nominated short film "Contact." Darby acknowledges directing a movie based on a classic is different from making an original.

"But you really only spend about five minutes thinking about that because you are so preoccupied with making your own story true to itself and fresh and strong on its own terms," he explains. "So that pretty much recedes from your mind quickly. This story is very different from 'Seven Days in May,' not just in its topical updating. It's a political as well as a military coup. It is less of a drama and more of a political thriller, as seen through the eyes of (whistle-bower) Mac Casey. It gets much closer to his character and his family. It's a much more personal, subjective-tense story."

Whitaker ("The Crying Game," "Blown Away") has yet to see the original movie because he didn't want to be influenced by the film. "I wanted a real close take on what the director was trying to do and what the script was trying to do."

Casey, Whitaker says, must confront himself and his relationship with his son as he attempts to stop the coup. "He has a really volatile situation with his son, who is 12," Whitaker says. "He's being rebellious and having problems in school. I'm trying to deal with him, but in the same manner as with the soldiers. It's really not working. Throughout the process of the film, I start to see the way I'm dealing with him and understand him better."

"It is a tremendously complex, difficult emotional journey," Darby adds. "He is not a conventional, political whistle-blower, in the sense he's not a reporter. He's not someone who is antagonistic to the military. In many ways, he sympathizes with the frustration the military feels, but disagrees, of course, with the means they seek to erase the frustration."

Don't expect cameos in the film from Kirk Douglas or even director Frankenheimer as an homage to "Seven Days in May."

"We are going to be compared to the original and the original is a classic," Peter Douglas says. "That's a tough nut to crack. I didn't think it was appropriate to mix the two (movies). The thing that's distinctively different between this and the original is we tried to integrate very real people in these roles. At least by my vision of the '60s, they were all big movie stars on the 40-foot screen. They were not accessible. The choice of Forest, who plays my father's role, is quite a different piece of casting. If you have ever been around Washington, which I have, that's the type of person you expect to be walking down the corridors. Not Kirk Douglas."

"The Enemy Within" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World