A political thriller is a thriller that is set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They usually involve various extra-legal plots, designed to give political power to someone, while his opponents try to stop him. They can involve national or international political scenarios. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes. Political thrillers can be based on true facts such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the Watergate Scandal. There is a strong overlap with the conspiracy thriller.
When reviewing the film The Interpreter, Erik Lundegaard attempted a definition:
The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature.
Before 1950, there were spy novels with political elements.
Some earlier examples, however, can be found in the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas (particularly his Three Musketeers novels, which often involve political conspiracies), as well as such literary works as Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent.
The actual political thriller came to life in the early days of the Cold War. Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) tells about the American involvement in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is set in the aftermath of the Korean War and the days of McCarthyism. In Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, an assault on Charles de Guille has to be prevented.
Several Alfred Hitchcock films already contain elements of the political thriller. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a political assault has to be prevented. In 1962, John Frankenheimer made a film adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate. All the President's Men is based on the Watergate Scandal. Other examples of political thrillers are Z, Three Days of the Condor, V For Vendetta, Romero, City Hall, Air Force One, Snowden and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Several post-9/11 political thriller films refer to the September 11 attacks or terrorism in general.
Shonda Rhimes' television series, Scandal, contains many elements of a political thriller in a chronological format.
The 1990 British drama serial, House of Cards, later adapted for Netflix in 2013, is a political thriller set after the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The ABC series, Designated Survivor, depicts the political power struggle that follows as a result of a terrorist attack that destroys the United States Capitol during the State of the Union, assassinating the President and all but one of his line of succession.
A playwright who has embraced the genre is Gary Mitchell, who in the 2000s became "one of the most talked about voices in European theatre ... whose political thrillers have arguably made him Northern Ireland's greatest playwright".
- Lundegaard, Erik (1 August 2006). "The Manchurian movie - Who took the politics out of the political thriller?". MSNBC Movie Options. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
- Loyalist paramilitaries drive playwright from his home — The Guardian news article, 21 December 2005.