A film review by Craig J. Koban

VANTAGE POINT jjj

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: Rex Brooks

Directed by Pete Travis / Written by Barry L. Levy

The 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"). 

I 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.  

To 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 afterthought).   VANTAGE 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. 

Perhaps 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. 

The 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 discovery. 

Of 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 he’s dead?).  

As 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.  

VANTAGE 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.

Still, 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 turns.

VANTAGE 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.  VANTAGE 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. 

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