A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 90 mins.
2008, PG-13, 90 mins.
Dennis Quaid: Thomas Barnes / Matthew Fox: Kent Taylor / Forest
Whitaker: Howard Lewis / William Hurt: President Ashton / Eduardo
Noriega: Enrique / Edgar Ramirez: Javier / Sigourney Weaver:
new political thriller VANTAGE POINT has been labeled by many as RASHOMON
meets TV’s 24, the earlier mentioned work being the landmark 1950 film
by Akira Kurosawa. That film
was groundbreaking for the way it had an unusual story structure that
suggested the sheer impossibility of getting the truth about one event
because of too many conflicting eye witness accounts (known in
psychological circles as "The Rashomon Effect").
think the comparison is a bit misleading in a few respects; the more one watches VANTAGE POINT the more the comparisons seem
less obvious. Kurosawa’s masterpiece attempted to gain some sort of
philosophical insight into the human condition and how people – when
confronted – can give divergent testimony about the truthfulness of
events. VANTAGE POINT is not interested at all in pontificating a
message, nor does seem to care much about the psychological underpinnings
of its characters. The film,
at a cursory level, has a structure like RASHOMON – it shows an
assassination attempt of a US president from eight different perspectives
in multiple flashback form – but its disjointed narrative is not
inclined to comment on the nature and reliability of truth; rather, it
reveals the truth with each new unraveling layer of the story.
say that VANTAGE POINT is not RASHOMON should not be considered a
criticism of the film. VANTAGE
POINT is more of an exercise in developing tension, expedient forward
momentum in the story, and maintaining audience involvement in the who-dunnit
plot. On these essential
levels, the film is efficient and well made by fastening a geopolitical
political thriller with very little aspirations at dry sermonizing or
social commentary (there’s a bit here and there, but it’s almost an
POINT – at its brisk 90 minutes – refrains from an erroneous,
heavy-handed approach to the material and focuses on the more primal
aspects of this type of genre filmmaking, which is action, intrigue, and a
nail biting pacing. Despite
some logical missteps and a few plot holes that just don’t fit, the
film wholeheartedly delivers by generating real suspense and involvement
in the material; once you start with it its hard to walk out on it.
Yes, it’s gimmicky filmmaking, but for this film it works.
the best aspect of the film is that it does not waste any time on needless
exposition: it thrusts viewers head on into its story and never looks
back. In the opening scene we
are in Spain where US President Ashton (William Hurt) is attending a
crucial anti-terrorism summit with other notable world leaders.
These opening few minutes of the President’s arrival are seen
through the eyes of a TV producer, Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver, very good
in a small role), as she leads her cameramen and anchorwoman to cover the
event. Things go crazy when
bullets are fired and the President goes down. Chaos erupts and an explosion can be heard in the
distance, which is then followed by a devastating explosion at the podium
of the speechmakers, which kills and injures hundreds of spectators,
including the reporter.
story then flashes back to a time before the President is shot to provide
a new vantage point of the incident.
The rest of the film goes backward and forward in time on several
occasions to give us separate vantage points of the what happened from
different prerogatives. During
the first flashback we see aging secret service agent Thomas Barnes (the
reliably decent Dennis Quaid) and a younger agent named Kent Tyler
(Matthew Fox) as they gear up for the President’s visit.
They also proceed to the podium with the Commander and Chief and
watch the crowd and all around. The
veteran Barnes notices a nearby window that’s opening with its curtains
brisling. Seconds later,
shots ring out and the President goes down, but Barnes does not see the
shooter, but he does see a tourist named Howard Lewis (Forrest Whitaker)
with a HD Camcorder that has recorded everything.
Gathering what he has seen on the camcorder, Barnes goes to Rex
Brooks’ production van, sees their footage, and makes a startling
course, before we can find out what that discovery is, we are whisked back
in the past and into another vignette that shows another vantage point,
with each one shedding light on the assassination particulars and who
orchestrated the whole enterprise. One
segment introduces us to Spanish police officer named Enrique (Eduardo
Noriega), who may or may not be a large suspect in the conspiracy.
We then get zipped back in time to a segment that involves the
President himself, where it's revealed to him that a terrorist plot is
afoot, so he decides to send in his “double” in place (apparently, the
Secret Service has been doing this since the Reagan years).
Evidently, since it's revealed that a double President went to the
podium, the real President was not shot, which makes for some dicey
decision making (for example, how can the real president make an executive
order to attack the terrorist country responsible when the world thinks
the flashbacks continue and even more perspectives are revealed we get
closer and closer to the truth, to the point where the final segments
gives us multiple points of view at once to show a complete picture of
the assassination and the perpetrators.
The essence here is that, in the beginning, we are given a jigsaw
puzzle with all the pieces scattered and – after all of the segments are
shown – then the pieces are all put together to create a full picture of
the events. Again, this
fractured and time shifting narrative structure is hardly new or
groundbreaking, but former British TV director turned first time feature
filmmaker, Pete Travis, uses it effectively and proficiently to garner our
immediate buy in.
POINT does suffer from some deficiencies, like the fact that it has movie
Secret Service men that ignore normal protocol of real life Secret Service
men (i.e.- none of these men in the film have heard of Kevlar or bullet
proof vests, which allows agents to be picked off all-too-easily by the
conspirators; I assume that the real S.S. men wear protection).
There are also some rational inconsistencies in the film, such as
the glaring lack of security at the site of the Presidential speeches (do
you think the Secret Service would not find a guy with an ear piece typing
away on his cell phone suspicious?). Then
there are the terrorists themselves, and their plan is ingeniously
constructed – perhaps a bit too much so – but their motives seem murky
and ill defined. There is
also a would-be shocking plot twist involving one major character that is
not as instantly surprising considering that he follows Roger Ebert’s
“Law of Economy of Characters”, which dictates that "any
apparently unnecessary or extraneous major character is undoubtedly the
villain.” Within a few
minutes of the film it should be easy to spot which character will do some
serious allegiance jumping later on.
if you smooth away some of its rough edges, VANTAGE POINT is moderately
exhilarating and tense and it manages to keep a relatively speedy pace
throughout, which is greatly assisted by the film’s energized direction
and swift editing. The
performances are also very good: Dennis
Quaid does a great job giving his agent a vulnerability and frustrated
energy and urgency – he’s always a credible presence in the film, even
when faced with some of the improbabilities of the story he populates.
I also liked the feistiness of Weaver’s brief turn as the TV
boss, and Whitaker is equally refined and decent as the tourist that may
have the key to solving the case. And
then there is Matthew Fox, a very good actor who also manages to elevate
his performance beyond some of the preposterousness of the plot and its
POINT may seem mechanical in its choice of style and methods, but the film
wisely decides to not be a political allegory (thankfully, this is not a
message film about our dicey political climate, nor is it have an
anti-Bush agenda, nor does it plague us with a “terrorism is an evil
that can never be stopped” agenda); instead it hones in on thrills and
suspense, which, I think, are its most basic intentions.
The film bends credulity many times, leaves us scratching our heads
even more, and involves a plot twist that simply does not tread
water very well. Nonetheless,
the film has lightning fast pacing, slam-bang action sequences, crafty
performances, and a forceful and vigorous momentum.
POINT may have too many reality-warping incongruities, too
many convenient plot coincidences, and stiff story construction,
but it’s thoroughly riveting, entertaining, and never dull.