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Vantage Point: Not so much a softer gentler imperialism in cinema, as WTF is going on here? March 16, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
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Saw Vantage Point this weekend. And what a strange movie it is. First up, I’m a sucker for that Bourne Identity, Spooks, 24, yada yada yada intelligence and security operative based television and cinema genre. I have preferences. Hence the Bourne trilogy is, for my money, worth viewing on a broad range of levels not least due to its arguably entirely subversive approach to genre (and political) tropes. And this despite a long held feeling that Matt Damon was a lightweight prior to these (although watching Dogma again recently I found him more interesting than I had remembered).

As with any successful film it can be guaranteed that more will follow in its wake. And so Vantage Point attempts to take the Bourne template and marry the temporal and visual trickery of 24 and Lost (which is itself tipping towards the thriller genre faster than some might like in the current season – while retaining a foot in both the fantasy and science fiction camps) to it.

Which leaves the inevitable question. Does it work? The answer is… No, no it doesn’t.

What we get is based around an assassination attempt upon a US President at an historic meeting of world leaders in Salamanca (the location is almost worth seeing the film for – except it’s not Salamanca, it’s Mexico City, which is a pity on more than one level) engaged in dealing with the War on Terror. As the President steps up to the podium in a square of the city he is shot. Soon after there is an explosion. And the trick? We see the same time period again and again from various vantage points. His security detail. An American tourist. A Spanish detective. A television network crew. ‘International’ terrorists. As each iteration emerges we learn a little more of the puzzle, but nothing comes together until close to the end.

Sounds interesting? Well, to some.

And on the formal level it almost works. There were some groans in the cinema on the fourth (or was it sixth?) run through, but broadly speaking it was held together well enough that interest didn’t flag. Much.

Unfortunately some of that interest was concentrated on entirely the wrong things.

For example, the acting. A risible script and ‘unusual’ – ahem – direction, saw Matthew Fox perhaps wisely taking a rather muted role, had Sigourney Weaver present a performance of such wooden quality that it would make the Alien appear to be a warm and personable character (let’s not talk about the TV reporter on the ground who reveals that ‘some of the people here don’t like us’ as she goes off message to the consternation of her bosses in a sequence of toe-curling lack of realism) while the usually reliable Forest Whitaker does us no favours as the humane American abroad ludicrously awestruck by a (sightly) different culture. Like, it’s not as if there are no Spanish cultural influences on the American continents, is it? Or that the thing was actually filmed in Mexico City because of said influences. Throw in a near-revolting sub-plot about the love-struck detective and a suspicious paramour so that whenever they spoke (with English sub-titles – good, nice to see that in mainstream US entertainments) Spanish-inflected strings swelled in the background to indicate their tortured relationship and we see a slide towards Hollywood kitsch of near epic proportions. But this is as nothing compared with a further subplot concerning a Spanish kid that is (almost) literally sickly sweet. Factor in a friendship, of sorts, between the US President (William Hurt) and a former bodyguard (Dennis Quaid) who had issues, not to mention post-traumatic stress disorder, having thrown himself in front of a previous assassins bullet and you begin to get the picture.

And then… and then… there is the political angle. Now, in fairness, the heart is almost in the right place. The President, at a particular moment is keen that the US shouldn’t squander international ‘sympathy’ when pressed by aides to bomb terrorist camps in a ‘friendly Arab nation’. Indeed he staunchly resists the plea’s to use force instead of nuance. But whether this is open mindedness or simple political calculation is not fully addressed. The antagonists are left – mercifully – nebulous as regards their identity, aims and motivations. Islamists? Well probably. All we know is that they’re part of the WOT and said WOT will ‘never end’ as one of them imparts in his dying breath. Comforting to know… But, in this confection such issues are somewhat secondary to the action. And action packed it certainly is.

Bombs blast. Shots ring out. Cars crash. Men run (and it is men, overwhelmingly). Spanish kid is put in harms way. More cars crash. Hotels explode. Spanish kid is removed from harms way. Special Forces men run a bit more. Spanish kid is put back in harms way. It’s sort of like 24 compressed into twenty minutes or so. Again and again and again. And there is, to be fair, a visceral pleasure in its pace and energy. It almost, from time to time, seems like a reasonable simulacra of an intelligent movie. But then one stops to think and it doesn’t.

Because loose strings there are aplenty. One would not wish such an inept security detail for anyone let alone the US President. One would think that there might be some level of protection for a world leader, any world leader, standing at a podium. One might suppose that there would be preparations for the sort of eventualities that we see here. One would be entirely wrong in those assumptions. In its own muddle-headed way it proceeds along the lines that if something can go wrong, well heck, it will go wrong.

I loath the term imperialist, but really, the thrust of the movie was -as noted by one of those I saw it with – that any cost to save the US President was worth it, up to and including the wholesale trashing of Salamanca (and its people) itself. And although it attempts to emulate the grit of the Bourne movies, it doesn’t quite get there. It is dirty, grubby, dusty and the aftermath of a bomb blast is well handled in all its gruesome detail, but there is a continual sense that this is a patina thrown across the characters and scenery to serve a greater purpose rather than the organic outcome of the events on screen.

And this leaves a paradox because in its ineffable not goodness, and believe me it’s not good, it somehow manages nonetheless to be quite entertaining. Not great. Oh no, nowhere near great But interesting. A sort of genre exercise that fails and comprehensively, yet retains enough residual effort to be worth a look. I think the Guardian got it about right when they noted:

There is a bit of a Groundhog Day feel before the surprises kick in, but this is serviceable entertainment, and how refreshing to see a commercial movie that tries something structurally and procedurally different.

And that’s an oddity too, because it is rather refreshing. Perhaps it’s the backdrop of the city. I’d certainly go to Mexico (or even Salamanca) based on the look of it. Or just that it’s trying. And then there is the near certainty that there will be another genre exercise sooner or later that will try another twist. Bring it on…

Comments»

1. Phil - March 17, 2008

Coincidentally, I saw it (with my 12-year-old son) yesterday (it was that or join the other half of the family in Horton Hears a Who). Like you, I almost liked it. (The 12yo loved it. Among other comments, he pointed out that it was much, much better than Pirates of the Caribbean 3 – which indeed it was.)

In its own muddle-headed way it proceeds along the lines that if something can go wrong, well heck, it will go wrong.

I don’t think this is right at all. It was a deeply paranoid film centring on the abuse of technology – my son also wondered if it would damage the sales of iPhones, which (or something very like them) are used to great effect by the head bomber. Things went wrong because the bombers went to great and ingenious lengths to make them go wrong – it was like the Italian Job with terrorists. And because there was a plentiful supply of recruits and sympathisers for an anti-American cause – a point most of the Americans were shown as completely failing to understand (that was the significance of the exchange with the more ‘enlightened’ anchor).

any cost to save the US President was worth it, up to and including the wholesale trashing of Salamanca (and its people) itself

There was something like that in there – POTUS was almost a talisman by the end of it – but I don’t know about the trashing; almost all the death and destruction we saw was caused by the bombers.

although it attempts to emulate the grit of the Bourne movies, it doesn’t quite get there. It is dirty, grubby, dusty and the aftermath of a bomb blast is well handled in all its gruesome detail, but there is a continual sense that this is a patina thrown across the characters and scenery to serve a greater purpose rather than the organic outcome of the events on screen.

The Bourne parallel is interesting. The demolition-derby destructiveness of the car chase sequences was a nod to the Moscoe car chase in one of the Bourne films, but really they were nothing like it – nowhere near as brutal and relentless. I was more struck by the lingering, unhurried shots of the aftermath of the main bombing, with the different protagonists sitting up, looking round and obviously thinking What was that? And what the hell do I do now? If the Bourne films redefine heroism by making it look really difficult and really dangerous, this film was more about heroism and post-traumatic stress.

Politically it’s no great shakes – there is a good President of the USA who must be defended, and there are evil Muslim terrorists who must be defeated. (At the risk of sounding like Nick Cohen, I was genuinely surprised that the terrorists didn’t turn out to be some kind of CIA/Mossad front group; that’s a very available storyline on dramatic grounds alone.) What I think was interesting was the way it tapped into fears around surveillance and propaganda: on one hand, everything was recorded (lots of vital pieces of evidence caught on camera); on the other, nothing got out without official filtering (the last line of the film closed the official book on the story, suggesting that most people would never know what had happened). That, and the suggestion that the danger was not the terrorists’ cause but their determination to fight – a mood shared by people advising the President – complicated the picture in some interesting ways.

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2. Under the mirror « The gaping silence - April 1, 2008

[…] have minded seeing on my own, or with another adult. (This post began as a comment on The Cedar Lounge Revolution, some time ago now – cheers, WbS.) It’s a high-concept film: there’s an assassination […]

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