Seven Days in May: Revisiting Frankenheimer 1964 Superb Political Thriller

Detailed Plot

The story is set in the early 1970s, ten years after the film’s 1964 release, when the Cold War is still a problem (in the book, the setting was May 1974). U.S. President Jordan Lyman has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, and the led to public dissent, especially among the President’s opposition and the military.

A Pentagon insider, US Marine Corps Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (the Director of the Joint Staff), suspicious of behavior of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reaches the conclusion the Joint Chiefs, led by the charismatic Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, intend to stage a coup d’etat to remove President Lyman and his cabinet in seven days. According to the plan, an undisclosed ombat unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) will seize control of the country’s communication networks, while Congress is prevented from implementing the treaty.

Appalled by the unconstitutional cabal, he alerts the President of the threat. Lyman forms an nner circle of trusted advisers to investigate, including Secret Service Director Art Corwin, Treasury Secretary Christopher Todd, adviser Paul Girard, and Georgia Senator Raymond Clark.

Casey visits General Scott’s former mistress, Ellie Holbrook, in New York City to ferret out potential secrets to be used against him. She not only collaborates but also goes to bed with him.

The aging, alcoholic Clark is sent to El Paso, Texas, to locate the supposed “Site Y” military base, while Girard leaves for the Mediterranean to obtain a confession from Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell, known to have declined participation in the coup. Girard gets the written confession, but is killed when his flight crashes in Spain, while Senator Clark is taken captive by conspirator Colonel Broderick upon finding the secret base. The senator convinces Colonel Mutt Henderson, the base’s deputy commander, to help him escape. They succeed, though when Clark makes a call to the President, Henderson is arrested by Scott’s men.

At a showdown with Scott in the Oval Office, the President demands his resignation and all Joint Chiefs involved in the plot. Scott denies any guilt, claiming that the President had verbally approved the secret base in Texas, before freely challenging the treaty, arguing it would weaken the U.S. and lead to an attack by the Soviets. Lyman counters with the suggestion that a military coup could result in a Soviet preemptive strike. Scott is confident that the American people are behind his position. Lyman allows Scott to leave.

Scott briefs the other three members of the Joint Chiefs, demanding they stay in line since the president does not have evidence for charging them with treason.  Reassured, they stick to the plan to appear on all television and radio networks on Sunday to denounce the President.

However, at a press conference, Lyman demands the resignation of Scott and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s interrupted by an attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Spain bringing Barnswell’s confession, found after the plane crash. A copy is given to Scott and the other officers, who are forced to resign.

In the upbeat end, Lyman addresses the American people on the country’s future.