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Vantage Point (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 February 2008
“Vantage Point” features a clever, unusual idea, at first compellingly watchable, but over the course of the movie, the plot gradually reveals itself as a standard, hokey political-thriller melodrama. The movie is well directed by relative newcomer Pete Travis, but the characters in the script by Barry L. Levy are one-dimensional, merely place-holding ciphers. Except that some are clearly Good Guys and some Bad Guys, there’s no reason to identify with anyone. Without that, the film loses its grip and becomes merely an exercise in clever photograpy and editing.

In Salamanca, Spain (but shot in Mexico City), U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt) is scheduled to speak at an international summit on terrorism. From the vantage point of seasoned TV news director Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), we see the preparations made for Ashton’s appearance at a big rally in a plaza courtyard.

Among those present is Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid); we learn that about a year before, Barnes had taken a bullet for Ashton. He’s been brought back somewhat early by compassionate fellow agent Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox). The large crowd also includes American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), shooting the goings-on with his trusty home video camera. He’s there without his family; we never learn clearly why he’s alone.

Ashton arrives, and as he steps forward to speak, shots ring out and he collapses, at least wounded, maybe killed. There’s a distant explosion—we eventually learn what that is—and then a much larger explosion goes off under the speakers’ platform. Brooks is stunned, as are we.

And then the movie rewinds like a videotape, only much faster, and it’s now 23 minutes earlier, exactly noon. Now we see all the same events, only from the vantage point (note the title) of Thomas Barnes. We follow him through all the events and a little further, until he sees something shocking on one of Brooks’ video monitors.

And the movie rewinds again. Later again, and again, each time taking the perspective of a different characters—Howard Lewis, a Spanish cop, a woman in the crowd, even the President. Each reiteration begins at the same point in time, but end differently. The writer and director are savvy enough that on the repeats, sometimes the same action is presented differently. The cop sees a conversation between a woman he’s been going with and a stranger as a brief romantic interlude; Lewis sees it as an argument, and the two observed actors play the scene differently. There’s probably more of this sort of thing than can really be noticed on the first viewing—but the movie simply isn’t good enough to prompt a viewer to sit through it again.
This is because it betrays its own promise. There haven’t been many of these back-and-fill movies before; Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” had a sequence somewhat like this, but each iteration was dramatically identical, just seen from other perspectives. Though the production notes insist this is similar to Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon,” “Vantage Point” is really something different, and not as interesting. However, it is a clever idea, and will look fresh and original to most viewers.

But most viewers are also likely eventually to lose patience with the movie. That reversing-the-tape idea becomes irritating—some in the preview audience laughed at the second repeat of this; a different way of showing this should have been found—maybe a closeup of a clock (different one each time) showing it’s again noon.

That’s a minor weakness, though. A more important weakness is that the overall plot—what the terrorists are really up to—is both almost indecipherably complex (I never could figure out of the cop was a Good Guy or a Bad Guy), ineptly displayed, and as uninterestingly odd as a standard TV movie dealing with this kind of stuff. “24” is far more probable than “Vantage Point,” which isn’t praise. So many twists and new ideas are thrust at the audience so swiftly that it’s difficult to assimilate—or accept—many of them.

Of the cast, Sigourney Weaver comes off the best. She’s completely believable as a tough, experienced news director; it’s a shame that after the first run-through of the time segment, we rarely see her again. Dennis Quaid’s Secret Service agent is very standard, very familiar, and too much like Clint Eastwood’s more relatable character in “In the Line of Fire.” Hurt’s President Ashton is basically a cipher; the movie scrupulously avoids suggesting any connection with any real U.S. president, living or dead. Certainly all ideological markers are avoided. Forest Whitaker’s character is simply hard to buy. Why does this guy, of all people, decide that he has a major part to play in the day’s activities? It can’t be his videotape, though we’re initially supposed to think it is. Part of it stems from his desire to restore a little girl he met to her mother after they were separated by the explosion. But she keeps being dropped from the storyline, then found again; continuity is insufficient.

The movie is slickly produced and well made; it’s even well directed—but Pete Tavis is no Paul Greengrass, and this is neither “Bloody Sunday” nor a Bourne adventure. He knows how to stage action, where to put the camera, and how to marshal actors. The movie is, by necessity, well edited—it had three editors, veteran Stuart Baird, and Sigvaldi J. Kárason and Valdís Óskarsdóttir—and does initially feature a strong, involving energy.

It runs down in the last half hour, and the audience gradually ceases to care very much about what’s happening. It even begins to seem somewhat comic, deadly for a thriller. But it’s well made enough, and has a very good idea at the heart. Who knows—you might enjoy it more than I did.

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