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Arts & Culture

Vantage Point

Vantage Point aspires to the kind of complex narrative that Kurosawa's Rashomon, with its multiple perspectives on a violent crime, achieved.

Vantage Point wants to suggest that no one point of view contains the truth but that you can find pieces of the puzzle within each. The problem (among many) is that the film is simply not very clever. The twists and turns do not come from intricate plotting but rather from crude manipulations. The film exemplifies the difference between complicated and complex - the former stemming from manipulation, contrivance and the desire to fool the audience whereas the latter comes from smart scripting, careful planning and the introduction of challenging ideas. The big "reveals" in each of the different points of view here occur because the filmmakers have cheated us or forced their characters to behave in ways that make no sense. I don't want to spoil these reveals for anyone who might want to see the film, but I put this question out there to consider in regards to the behavior of at least two characters - what would make someone ruthlessly kill numerous innocent people for? Could you be coerced to do so if it contradicted your moral values? Would you have to sign on to the politics of the terrorists involved? Who would you be willing to betray to commit such an act? The answers the film serves up are neither very satisfying nor convincing.

In addition, the film really has nothing to say. It serves up a story about a peace summit, a president under attack and terrorists, yet theses thing are mere fodder for director Peter Travis to manipulate. Now I don't expect every film to have a message but when a film takes on current hot button issues like terrorism and how America is perceived in the world, it should have a point of view. For a film that proclaims to be all about points of view and finding the truth, Travis' film ironically has none - except to cop out to the everything's really okay in the world Hollywood formula.


William Hurt as President Ashton in Vantage Point (Columbia)

Former TV director Peter Travis and frosh screenwriter Barry L. Levy present us with a U.S. president who has survived at least one prior assassination attempt and is currently being picketed at the summit. Spanish protesters don't just carry anti-American signs but signs that specifically label President Ashton as the world's worst and most wanted terrorist. But when we meet him he's all Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes spewing idealistic cliches about peace and not giving in to the terrorists. Is he depicted like that because the film is unwilling to present a president in a critical light or is it just because they're lazy and this is an easy presidential stereotype to present (see Harrison Ford in Air Force One for another Hollywood action version of the commander in chief)? Either way the film shortchanges us.

The terrorists are drawn as similar stock characters. There's a deliberate attempt not to connect them directly to Al Qaeda. So the terrorists may look Arab but boast Spanish names or maybe aliases. But since the film moves quickly and focuses essentially on about an hour or so of activity we get no sense of what defines these terrorists. All we know is they hate the U.S We need some background information (either on them or on something specific to Ashton) to make what happens believable. Again, I hesitate to speak in specifics because it gives away the plot. But let me just say that I don't buy that one of the main characters would be coerced into killing innocent people for the terrorists because of a bargain he made and that he expects the evil doers to make good on. I mean, would you trust a terrorist to keep his word? I don't think so. And when the moral and human stakes are so high, the behavior of this character is hard to accept. Another reason he comes across poorly is that the only background we are given about him is a piece of information that goes to plot exposition. We are told he has special opps training so that we will accept his efficiency with weapons.

Then at the end of the film, we find out (none too surprisingly I might add) that there's another person who has thrown in with the terrorists. But since we discover this only at the very end, we're left wondering why? Was that person coerced as well or did that person buy into the politics or motives of the terrorist group?



And there is one final and crucial point that I have to at least make reference to because it was so annoying and unbelievable. This is a partial spoiler so skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film. Anyway, key plot turn hinges on whether or not you will believe that a terrorist who has just murdered dozens of innocent people would swerve to miss a kid in the road. I'm not buying it. It's inconsistencies like that that ruin the film.

Although the trailer has been playing incessantly for what has seemed like months, people in the audience still seemed surprised by the film's basic format. Every time the film rewound to replay events from a different character's perspective, the audience giggled and moaned. This reflects the fact that the film simply didn't pull off its narrative device with much aplomb. Although flawed in other ways the recent Before the Devil Knows You're Dead used the rewind technique to better narrative effect and to truly provide insight with each flashback. Films such as Memento and Pulp Fiction revealed far better constructed scripts employing multiple perspectives within the context of a puzzle mystery. (Even though technically, Memento stuck to just one person's perspective, but it was a man with the inability to remember anything so the multiple vantage points were all his own and varied depending on what he knew at that moment. The gimmick was for the audience to start putting together all those memory fragments to figure out the bigger picture.)

Director Travis says in the press notes: "If you were to follow only one story, you wouldn't find out the truth about what really happened. As you see each story, you see something else that you never knew before. It's only when you get to the end that you figure out what really went on."

Reporting the truth? Dennis Quaid and Sigourney Weaver in Vantage Point (Columbia)

But that's not true. Each story tells you something you didn't know but not in a skillful, cunning manner. Travis hides information but he doesn't really offer variations on the truth. He blows a brilliant opportunity to play with this notion of truth by having an American TV news producer televising the live event. Travis and Nash hint at the media manipulation as the producer instructs her reporter to not report on the protesters. But the filmmakers fail to expand on this idea. George Romero's latest zombie flick Diary of the Dead does a far superior job of suggesting how different points of view reflect different versions of the truth, and how in our age of new technology everyone feels like they can record their version of the truth and post it to the Internet. Travis doesn't even bother to present the TV news cameraman's p.o.v. even though the character is involved in more than just shooting the events on videotape. Employing various media to reveal different perspectives could have been exploited to good effect here. Blow Up did this with a single picture and a murder that's revealed; and The Conversation and Blow Out both use sound recordings as a means by which a murder is revealed. But Travis and Nash plod through their story with only superficial interest in what's going on. So what we get is a superficial film.

This lack of attention to detail comes through in the way the American secret service is presented. Although the events take place in Spain, the Americans run around like they own the place. They order people around in English and everyone seems to understand. They run around with guns drawn and even firing yet the Spanish cops do nothing. On the one hand the film has the terrorists suggest that the Americans don't always hold all the cards and don't always have a superior position yet the film shows us the exact opposite. This film makes no adjustment for the fact that these American secret service men are in a foreign country and could face problems with language, customs and terrain. There's also a smug American superiority in the way the "foreign" perspectives are almost all lumped together in a single flashback (only the Spanish cop gets one of his own).

But I will say there was one thing I did like about the film: the car chases. There was an insane energy in the multiple chases through narrow Spanish streets (actually Mexico, I believe) and frequently ending in nasty crashes. I don't know how much was CGI work and how much was old fashioned stunt work but it kicked ass. It had an old school quality to the in-your-face audacity of the chases and the speed at which the cars moved. Travis gives us car chases that don't slow down for us to admire the stunt work. I might almost sit through the crappy storytelling one more time just to see the car chases. These are the kind car chases that Stuntman Mike from Death Proof might be able to appreciate - although I suspect there's more visual effects work employed here than in 70s car films like Vanishing Point, East My Dust and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

The actors are rather inconsequential in a film like this since none get to develop much depth. The film loads up on familiar talent - William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker - so that people can immediately recognize them and the character type each plays. The foreign stars - Eduardo Noreiga, Saïd Taghmaoui, Edgar Ramirez - are all talented but again have little to work with to display their craft.

Vantage Point (rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, some disturbing images and brief strong language) employs a gimmick to grab attention but it's replaying of events from different points of view fails to genuinely offer any enlightenment. But the film does move quickly so you're unlikely to get bored. But as soon as it ends, you will feel shortchanged. Entertaining but totally vacuous.

Companion viewing: Air Force One, Rashomon, Memento, Go, The Conversation, Blow Up, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead , The Lookout

In trying to determine whether the car stunts had CGI or not I did come across this cool site devoted to car chases . You can find a video there documenting car chase cliches (from the burnout to the oncoming truck) and ending with "Shudderable/Sickening examples of CGI." Lots of fun!