The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Vantage Point

Full review behind the jump

Vantage Point

: Pete Travis
: Barry L. Levy
: Neal H. Moritz
: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Edgar Ramirez, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Eduardo Noriega, Bruce McGill, Zoe Saldana

So many movies written by eager screenwriters hoist the banner of
Rashômon while consistently failing to understand Rashômon. I sometimes wonder if they’ve even seen it. What made Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 breakthrough film memorable was that it exposed our self-deceiving nature. Revisiting a violent confrontation in the woods from the points-of-view of the three participants (one of which is a ghost), each recalls the events differently. But the fourth and final recitation, by an uninterested passer-by, reveals them all to be cowardly, self-flattering liars, even the ghost.

That haunting notion is what you might label the Kurosawa Uncertainty Principle – that in any event that involves our selves, our memories are irrevocably made unreliable. We are doomed, even after this life, to sinful false witness by our own prideful egos.

Vantage Point
is not about any of that distressing chimerical truth stuff; it is a conspiracy thriller with a gimmick. It shuttles back and forth in time over the same rough half-hour period, each trip centering in on a different participant in the key events. Its revelations are not soulful but procedural – the liars are the filmmakers, steering us, not very artfully, around the truth until it’s time for the big chase. It is mounted with resourcefulness and polish, and populated with excellent actors, but substantively it amounts to little more than a carnival ride; one that swiftly deposits you back where you began, scarcely enriched for the experience.

The central incident is an anti-terrorism address that was supposed to be delivered by American President Ashton (William Hurt) at a summit of world leaders in Salamanca, Spain. But a shot is fired, commotion erupts, there is an explosion, and the story fragments, each major character there for one piece of the puzzle.

There’s Brooks, the news director (Sigourney Weaver), trying to manage a live broadcast that’s become much more deadly and chaotic than imagined, real news suddenly igniting in front of a team accustomed to broadcasting puffery friendly to the powers-that-be. There’s the genial tourist Howard (Forest Whitaker), wandering the historic city with his camcorder, who befriends a little girl, and thinks he sees a shooter in a window. And there’s Barnes, the veteran Secret Service Agent (Dennis Quaid) who has already taken one bullet for this President, who spots something on a videotape that haunts him.

Naturally the attempted assassination is more than meets the eye, and involves one of those typically convoluted cinematic alliances of dupes and turncoats and good people forced into bad deeds, presided over by a serenely confident evil mastermind who has never learned that simple plans are less likely to go awry. It presents a sturdy opportunity to play one of my oldest movie-going games, wherein I derive the likelihood of a character’s “surprise” involvement in a conspiracy by considering the ratio of their star power to their seemingly incongruous lack of screen time.

Many people are imperiled and/or killed, and many things explode, and there’s an invigorating car chase. There are two quite involving sequences. In one our sympathies are scrambled as we watch a decent-hearted person supremely successful at a horrible mission. That’s an old trick in this genre, but it got that way by being an effective trick.

The other is a nimble stretch where Howard tries to keep up with a police foot pursuit, camcorder in hand as he balances his concern over that little girl with this obsessive sense that, by recording these events, he has become an intrinsic part of them, and cannot miss out on the ending. There’s an opportunity here for the dispassion of videotape and the shaken psychology of an ordinary man suddenly enmeshed in world-shattering drama to produce some conflict around truth, something almost Rashômon-like, say. It doesn’t, but at least it’s energetic as we watch it.

Vantage Point has recycled the lingo of our contemporary circumstances but not the complexity. Pro forma arguments erupt about the consequences of violently overreacting in a world that does not boil down into easy good-and-evil clichés, but that’s a fine dialogue to try and have in a movie where the bad guy might as well dispense with ideology and put on a black hat. Appropriating the War on Terror for such a fundamentally non-serious shoot-‘em-up is arguably a greater insult to the intelligence than claiming lineage to Rashomon, but it’s hardly a new crime for Hollywood – this movie would have and could have been made in the 50’s through the 80’s with scheming Cold Warriors, and all you’d need to change would be the accents.

Perhaps I’m condemning a legitimately competent piece of action programming on the basis of its trappings and its marketing claims. After all, it is successfully fast and slick, and Weaver, Quaid, and especially Whitaker demonstrate excellence within what room they have to maneuver in Barry L. Levy’s script. But the critic must adopt the role of that final witness in Rashômon – the one who, having observed all but participated directly in none, can render final judgment on all pretensions: I know Rashômon, Rashômon is a favorite movie of mine. And this, sir, is no Rashômon.


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