Under the mirror

Counting films on TV & video, the last five films I’ve seen (from most recent) are

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Pride and Prejudice
High School Musical 2
High School Musical
Vantage Point

You may sense a theme emerging. Spiderwick is certainly a film I wouldn’t have seen if I weren’t a parent, but as such it was much better than I’d expected (although by the end of it I had seen enough CGI goblins, trolls and boggarts to last me a good long time). The plotting was a bit odd and baggy in places, probably thanks to the film being based on five separate books, but the construction and pacing were terrific – it gripped and didn’t let go. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen in some time, with some well-executed horror-movie ‘house under attack’ sequences; what the eight-year-old of the family made of it I’m not sure. By comparison the High School Musicals are fluff, but they’re enjoyable fluff. HSM2 suffers from diminishing returns – and from the inexplicable decision to cut out the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” number, which leaves a big hole in the film – but they’re both worth a look if you like musicals. (I’m a sucker for a well-executed musical, and these are.) Nice liberal anti-conformity message, too. And Pride and Prejudice – the only proper grown-up film we’ve seen lately – is wonderful, but not in a costumey way. It’s true to the novel, which is very far from being a costume-drama novel; the performances have that quality David Lynch used to get on Twin Peaks, of actors going just far enough over the top. I never expect to see a better Darcy than Matthew McFadyean; he’s sulky, awkward, odd-looking and a howling snob, all of which makes him a great improvement on (say) the Colin Firth portrayal. Keira Knightley actually gives one of the poorer performances – she doesn’t quite get the length, and sometimes seems like she’s strolled in from another film – but she’s still very watchable, what with being Keira Knightley.

But this post is about Vantage Point, which was something of a personal milestone – the first film I’ve been to with my son that I wouldn’t 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 attempt on the President of the US (POTUS, as he’s called throughout the film); we see the 10-15 minutes either side of the shooting from the viewpoint of a TV news team, then see it again from the standpoint of an eye-witness, then another – and another – and another. As each sequence ends we’re shown a montage of the key events we’ve just seen, speeded up and in reverse: rewind the tape and let’s go again. After four of these sequences, each of which reveals a bit more about what’s happened, we rewind once more and then follow events from the standpoint of the terrorist group responsible for the shooting. Or that’s how it seems to begin with; after a while we realise the film’s reverted to standard omniscient-narrator mode, and the second half is shot very much like a conventional thriller. Very much in the style of the Bourne films, in particular, or at least in a style meant to evoke the Bourne films – the action isn’t nearly as brutal, or the hand-held camerawork as jerky. Where the style of the film does score, intermittently, is in evoking the experience of some fairly extreme events. Most of the gunplay is standard-issue bang-you’re-dead stuff, but there’s one catastrophic event that’s followed by some strikingly unhurried shots of the aftermath: you can see 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.

It’s pretty political, for a mainstream action film; to be more precise, it’s a “this is pretty political for a mainstream action film” film. Very self-conscious, very media-studies – and, ultimately, not very political (we learn next to nothing about the terrorist group at the heart of the action). If there’s an overriding mood to the film it’s less radical than paranoid. The way it puts on display anxieties about recorded images, surveillance and the mass media is typical. The first sequence is set in an outside broadcast newsroom, belonging to a US satellite channel modelled on CNN; at the end, the film returns to the satellite channel, closing with a grainy full-screen image of their newsreader. The first-person sequences that make up the first half of the film include some sequences from the character’s viewpoint, but mostly we’re either looking straight at the character or looking over his shoulder. It’s a curious effect: when the first-person character looks around to take in a whole scene, in particular, the giddy looping of a hand-held camera reproduces his head movements – even though the guy himself is in shot. The grammar of these shots effectively writes in the film-maker, saying we are showing you how it looked to him – a point that’s underlined thuddingly by those pause-and-rewind sequences. (He, he, him – all the four eye-witness characters are male.) There were lots of cameras within the film; at one point or another just about everyone was filming, being filmed or both, and much vital evidence was seen being caught on camera. On the other hand, it was clear that we were being shown the view from inside, and nothing was going to get out without heavy official filtering. Before the main action of the film, a reporter on the ground was seen pointing out that lots of people in Europe weren’t too keen on US foreign policy, and being roundly rebuked for going off the script about unity in the face of terror. The foiling of a real (and fiendishly complex) terrorist plot naturally didn’t change this policy; the last line of the film closed the official book on the story, suggesting that most people would never know what had happened.

The focus on camcorders and cameraphones links into a more general unease – or uneasy fascination – with technology. My son wondered if the film would damage the sales of iPhones, which (or something very like them) are used to great effect by the head bomber. At several points I was strongly reminded of the Italian Job, of all things: the terrorists pull off an impossibly complex plot, forestalling and circumventing anti-terrorist counter-measures through ingenuity, co-ordination and some very advanced technology. However, in this film we’re dealing with a terrorist coup carried out by ruthless fanatics rather than a payroll robbery pulled off by a gang of lovable South London incompetents, which makes for a very different mood: you don’t actually want the terrorists to succeed, to put it bluntly. The terrorists’ indomitable ability to stay one step ahead of the forces of law and order feeds right into the film’s pervasive sense of paranoia and helplessness. Whatever we (meaning, roughly, the US Secret Service) do or think of doing, they will know about it already; nothing we can do but keep on keeping on, shoot the bad guys when the opportunity presents itself, and trust to luck to get us out of this thing (it works in this film, anyway). A very American version of heroism, but with a beleaguered, disenchanted post-Cold War edge – as if to say, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t really believe we’re fighting the good fight any more – but they’re still out to get us, so we’d better just keep fighting.

This links into the more explicit politics of the film: it is specifically the Americans (including, presumably, the main audience for this film) who don’t know what’s going on, and who are feeding the enemy without realising it. After technology, the terrorists’ main weapon is their ability to recruit: half the characters you see turn out either to be members of the terrorist group or to be temporarily complicit with them for various reasons. At the most basic level, the message is that Europe has 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’ reporter). But of course this point cuts both ways: if the Americans have good reason to be fearful, that also means they have good reason to keep fighting.

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists’ cause is almost completely unspecified – although I can reveal, without giving too much away, that the group is genuine. (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; that’s a very available storyline on dramatic grounds alone.) They are shown as motivated by hatred both of the US and of the effects of US foreign policy; their anger feeds on the Americans’ naivety and their conviction that they stand for peace and democracy. Having made any kind of democrat/terrorist opposition problematic, the film gestures towards an alternative polarisation, between those who stand for peace and reconciliation (including the noble and far-sighted POTUS) and those who call for war without end (including both the terrorists and the President’s advisors). (The wise POTUS and his scheming advisors – a very old theme, and not a particularly radical one.) However, a gesture is all it is; whether POTUS stands for peace or war, when push comes to shove he still needs to be saved from the terrorists. More to the point, even if their motivation is understandable (and their grasp of technology is impressive) the terrorists are still evil fanatics who must be defeated; they are, after all, terrorists.

I’m not sure what the multiple-point-of-view gimmick adds up to in the end; all the narratives are ultimately consistent with one another, so the film isn’t making a point about subjectivity. I think it’s about the sense that nobody gets a complete picture of what’s going on, so that no first-person account can really be trusted (including your own). On the other hand, the news media – who are well placed to assemble a composite picture from multiple sources – are so dedicated to producing a coherent and sanitised version of events that their account can be trusted least of all. We’re back with the paranoid mood that makes this film at once more interesting than it looks and less radical than it seems to think it is. Scepticism carried to this level is ultimately rather disempowering: we can’t know what’s going on, they‘re probably one jump ahead anyway, let’s just keep on keeping on and hope we get lucky. What’s taken to be the American view of the world gets roundly criticised in this film; this world definitely isn’t a safe place for American good intentions. But, with the exception of the President’s bellicose advisors, those good intentions are never challenged – indeed, American good intentions ultimately save the day – so we’re left with not much more than a sense of omnipresent threat. The politics this feeds into is ultimately rather nasty – dogged, fearful, critical of what the USA does but willing to do anything to defend what America is, as incarnated in the wise and noble POTUS.

I’m afraid the film is right about one thing – that is about as political as a mainstream action film can get these days. It’s a lot more political than The Spiderwick Chronicles, anyway.

Update 1/4/08: we watched The Last King of Scotland this evening. Simon McBurney’s very good in it, Forest Whitaker’s brilliant and the locations are stunning, but that’s about it. The lead character’s an annoying twerp, the plot’s unbelievable and the action of the film bears almost no resemblance to the book it’s supposedly based on. On balance I’d rather have been watching Vantage Point.


  1. Posted 3 April 2008 at 17:48 | Permalink | Reply

    When I watched Vantage Point at the cinema I felt – for the first time in a while – a surge of patriotism (for my university and my country). It was the part after the ambulance had crashed – and miraculously the President had survived, there were a few giggles and you could hear people murmuring ‘as if he could survive that’. And then brilliantly, there was that ‘poignant moment’, where Dennis Quaid’s character reaches out and grabs the President saying ‘I’ve got you Mr. President’ and was silhouetted against the sky.

    The whole cinema just collapsed in laughter.

    It was great.

  2. Posted 9 April 2008 at 09:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, that was a moment, wasn’t it!

    But I’ve been thinking about Phil’s phrase for a while now since I first read this post about how it’s the most political a mainstream film can be and it’s really resonated. It’s funny, I was watching Daywatch, the Russian film, recently and wondering how much contemporary Russian society shaped it with both a high Hollywood gloss, but a profoundly and certainly unAmerican gloom pervading it…

  3. Posted 20 April 2008 at 02:02 | Permalink | Reply

    Check out, also, Southland Tales (which I’ve just reviewed over at my place) for an example of modern US cinema trying to tackle politics. It’s a long way from being totally successful (and the film exists a long way outside the mainstream when all is said and done) but it’s very interesting nonetheless.

    Probably not one for the kids though.

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