A number of different factors all contributed to the massive collapse of the New Hollywood Cinema almost exactly at the moment that the 1970s became the 1980s, and the last completely vital epoch in American filmmaking came to its crashing end. Not a very happy state of affairs for the historically-minded cinephile to contemplate, but even in the wrack of the early '80s, there are still certain moments of interest, to one who is anxious enough to pull interesting observations out of what might well be the most diabolically boring five year span in Hollywood history. Chiefly, it has always been a kind of sour delight of mine to watch the different ways that the great directors of the previous decade dealt with the sudden loss of experimental freedom in those days. At one extreme, we have Terrence Malick, who simply dropped out of the industry for 20 years. There's the Francis Coppola approach, to quixotically chase down dream projects that cost obscene amounts of money, until your name has slowly but surely become a punchline (the same happened to Robert Altman); better to be a Woody Allen, and make films so cheap that nobody particularly cares if you can turn a profit or not, so they mostly leave you alone. For the most part, though, the great artists of the '70s hit the '80s with a graceless slump, taking whatever idiotic films the studios would let them make, and trying to put them together in the classiest way possible. Rare indeed was a filmmaker such as Martin Scorsese, who didn't even seem to register the arrival of the 1980s until into the 1990s, when he had a slump that was still more idiosyncratic and fascinating than most directors can achieve at their career peaks.

Alan J. Pakula, it must be said, did not greet the 1980s with the self-defeating resistance of Coppola, though nor did he bury himself in tedious studio-mandated drivel as willingly as, for example, Hal Ashby. Still, his first film of the decade was a fairly "safe" project, given his past successes: a conspiracy thriller set in the corridors of power in the United States. Yet at the same time, Rollover is not a particularly user-friendly thriller. Its narrative is based in fiscal theory and currency markets, its plot concern the machinations of shadowy men in suits manipulating money to create value out of nothingness, and its message to audience in 1981, tender from the constant economic terror of the last eight years or so, was an alarmed, paranoid one: "This is how fragile our economy is - any number of essentially arbitrary choices could break the dollar. It is a wicked thing that we got to this state, but now that we're here, pray that we never change: for a change would invite sheer chaos". A message arguably more resonant in the late 2000s than it was in the early 1980s.

So, you can't give away the plot in a movie like this one, but here's the situation: Maxwell Emery (Hume Cronyn), chairman of First New York Bank and one of the Great Wise Men of Wall Street, bails out the struggling Boro National Bank from some panicky bad investments, and installs Hub Smith (Kris Kristofferson) as his fixer, to study Boro's financials and figure out some way to keep them solvent. Hub's solution: broker a massive loan between a private investor and some money-hungry business, and use the broker's fee to keep Boro afloat for at least the next month or so. The money-hungry business he sets his sights on is Winterchem (one of Boro's largest clients), reeling from the recent murder of its chairman and founder, Charlie Winters. Luckily for Hub, this has resulted in internal struggle between the current board and newly widowed Lee Winters (Jane Fonda), whose need for mourning is much less important than her desire to take over the chairmanship of Winterchem, and she has just the $500 million deal to do it: a petrochemical plant in Valencia, Spain. Hub helps Lee put together a deal with a group of Saudi Arabian money-men, and things seem to start purring along smoothly - Hub and Lee even become lovers - until a mysterious bank account numbed 21214 starts showing up on various ledgers, and both Hub and Lee start to figure out, individually, that there is something very shady going on. The precise nature of that shadiness is complicated enough that even if I wanted to spoil it, I don't know that I could; it involves transferring money in legally grey channels very slowly, hedging against the omnipresent possibility of the dollar suffering a quick drop in value while creating a scenario where such a drop becomes significantly more probable.

Like Oliver Stone's Wall Street at the other end of the decade, Rollover is a vicious and even raving indictment of the rotten core of market speculation that presents its subject in such an exciting way that a sufficiently inattentive viewer could mistake it for a tribute to the very system it condemns (one of the most interesting things I've done in the last 24 hours was to read a review written from a Randian perspective, praising a movie whose entire point is that Randian economic philosophies have left our entire culture balanced on a knife's edge). But it's clear to me, anyway, that the passel of story writers culminating in a screenplay by David Shaber had a very present fear of unchecked market capitalism, and wanted to show people what terrible things could, theoretically, happen, if enough people all made mistakes at just the right time. This is an alarmed, worst-case scenario kind of movie, although very little of what it suggests is untrue: the Saudis did and do have enough money in the U.S. economy that if for whatever reason they decided to pull it all out, we would be fatally fucked; banks did and do shuffle money around in all sorts of crazy ways, hoping to keep together for long enough that the Fed never has to find out - and we're currently sitting in the steaming pile of what happens when the banks mess up. Bizarrely, given how over-the-top its paranoia can be at the time, Rollover has been justified by history as being, at worst, an exaggeration of a stone-cold reality.

Paranoia thrillers are of course one of the things that Alan J. Pakula does best, and he latches onto the internecine machinations of the plot like a bulldog onto a leg. The vagaries of the market are, let's face it, a pretty damn esoteric thing to film, but Pakula manages to make business meetings and working lunches pop like firecrackers, and even to a viewer who has no idea what the hell is happening - and the screenplay does not make it easy for anyone without a reasonably specific knowledge of how markets work - can certainly pick up on the underlying menace of particular scenes. Shot by Giuseppe Rotunno - the man who worked on most of Fellini's films in the 1970s, and earlier collaborated with Visconti - the film strives for a kind of "Gordon Willis lite" quality, that it largely achieves; even setting aside the plain fact that Pakula was attempting to recreate the look of Klute and The Parallax View, Rotunno is good enough on his own to make the murky interiors of Wall St. look threatening just as a single image.

It is an anonymous bit of direction, true; by far the least visually precise movie of Pakula's career, save for a handful of interesting long takes, the best of which are oddly aggressive panning shots (one of these opens the film). It is, however, a damn accomplished job of direction, and if Rollover is not as engrossing as the best '70s political thrillers, it's surely the equal to the average among them, and even the average for a '70s political thriller is a pretty high bar. Certainly, it's miles more thrilling and brainy and gripping than any of the "smart" thrillers from the remainder of the 1980s.

Where Rollover crumples, uncharacteristically enough, is in the characters, ordinarily the focus of Pakula's strongest attention. Only All the President's Men similarly ignores the psychology of its leads, and I almost hesitate to count it: the Washington Post and the concept of journalism are the characters in that film, more than Woodward and Bernstein. In Rollover Hub and Lee clearly stand in for the human element that makes mistakes and gets ground up and destroyed by the implacable market, but we're never really given any "in" to engage with them. The screenplay, and Pakula, are far more concerned with the labyrinthine intricacies of the plot, and whenever character or narrative must be given precedence, character always loses. This particularly hurts in that Lee becomes the first of her kind in Pakula's cinema: a woman presented from a decidedly sexist perspective. It is strongly indicated that all of her terrible mistakes are ultimately derived from her gender, and this is about as far as her character goes: the chick who falls in love and is stupid. The usually-reliable Fonda can do nothing at all with this, and it's a depressingly far cry from her last work with Pakula, the resolutely gender-neutral Comes a Horseman.

(Naturally, with characters so flat and uninteresting, the love story that takes up fully two-fifths of the plot is nothing but a dull waste of running time).

There is little else to say about the film, since other than keeping the tension high Pakula does little of any particular interest (it is plainly a movie made from his comfort zone, without any real attempt to push any envelopes like his previous thrillers had done). The score by Michael Small is stunningly bad, all burbly and playful and turn-of-the-'80s in ways that are actively deleterious to the drama; but otherwise the situation is nothing more or less than this: a talented filmmaker made a thriller that was absolutely no better than it had to be, and indeed it is quite thrilling, when it is not forcing us to watch its cardboard characters. I don't know whether to call that a positive review or not. It's Pakula's worst film to that point, I know that much, although "worst" doesn't quite mean "bad", not yet. That was still to come.

NB: Ignore the IMDb plot synopsis - it is not only a spoiler, but an inaccurate spoiler, and implies a film infinitely more racist than is the case.