Friday, March 20, 2009

Vantage Point

The 1963 assassination of President Kennedy became a crucial touchstone date in American history. In a certain sense, it marked the advent of uncertainty as a popular cultural concept. Almost from the beginning, rumors, gossip, myths, and tales circulated about the killing. These gained such prominence that they eclipsed the official Warren Report account. In the early 1970s, a congressional committee conducted its own investigation of the assassination and voted to overturn the single-bullet theory of the Warren report. The Zapruder amateur footage of the killing in itself became a cultural fetish, to be watched with agonizing fascination over and over. The Zapruder footage became a sacred visual text for assassination theorists. It formed a crucial center of Don DeLillo's novel Libra and of Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991), which found virtually everyone but JFK responsible for the president's death. (JFK is a fascinating film about conspiracy and overwrought national paranoia. It convinced me--in spite of itself--that the single-bullet theory must be true).

Vantage Point (2008) at first seems to promise another variation on multiple point of view fascination with catastrophic public events. It suggests the television series 24 in its reliance on fast-paced, tightly edited scenes focused on real-time action, intrigue, and political mayhem. It also reminded me of a number of films that deconstruct conventional narrative time sequences as a way not only of telling a story but also of commenting on the very nature of narrative, of cause and effects, of reality. Think of the enormously entertaining Run Lola Run (1998) and of Timeline (2003) and many others.

Vantage Point pretends to be such a film. But in the end it is just another political thriller that uses disjunctive narrative strategies to camouflage a poorly conceived plot and stock characters. The film is set in a fictional Spanish city where Western leaders are meeting in a summit where they plan to present a united front against terrorism. The President of the United States is there, under heavy security, and when he steps up to the podium to speak, he is shot and crumples to the floor. Chaos, explosions, and chaos ensue. The film repeats this scene five or six times, each time from a different perspective, each time providing a slightly different slice of information, each time allowing the viewer to understand more of the story and the roles of various characters in the event. Some characters who at first seem unimportant turn out to be important; others who seem to be nominal bystanders turn out to be villains.

This is not a film about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. As the different versions of the event play themselves out, we do not challenged with contradictory accounts that prevent us from realizing what really happened. Instead, they add up to a complete story. The contending narratives do not cancel one another out. They add up to a conventional, mundane picture of a not-too-complex puzzle.

Forrest Whittaker is one of the only standouts in the film, and he is largely at a loss. With his large slovenly body and his distinctive facial features, he looks like a real human being rather than a slick Hollywood actor in a half-baked suspense thriller. He plays a tourist who for some reason has come to Spain to escape his collapsed marriage. He carries an HD video camera and obsessively films everything happening around him, to a point where he seems almost unreasonably intrusive. His camera becomes one of the main ways in which the film shows the action—as if it is not enough to tell the story from different characters' viewpoints, but as if it's somehow validating to have the ubiquitous video camera involved, the film's own convenient Zapruder home video.

Dennis Quaid is briefly interesting as a secret service agent back on his first assignment after taking a bullet for the president in an assassination attempt a year earlier. Has he lost his cool? Does he still have what it takes? Wasn't there a Clint Eastwood film—In the Line of Fire (1993) with a similar plot?

To ensure our attention, Vantage Point inserts a cute lost child into the equation. Will she find her mother? Will she be killed by a careening vehicle? Stay tuned!

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