(2008, PG-13) Dennis Quaid (Agent Thomas Barnes), William Hurt (Pres. Harry Ashton), Matthew Fox (Agent Kent Taylor), Forest Whitaker (Howard Lewis), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sam), Sigourney Weaver (Rex Brooks). Music: Roy Budd. Screenplay: Barry L. Levi. Director: Pete Travis. 90 minutes.
Tags: Mystery, Suspense, Political Thriller
Notable: Plot twists that are both relevant and well-resolved — unusual in modern thrillers.
American President Harry Ashton is in Spain to promote an historic anti-terrorism summit when he himself is struck by an assassin’s bullet. Eight different people were direct witnesses to what happened, but the question that Secret Service Agent Tom Barnes — himself a witness — has to answer is what, exactly, did they see… and what does it mean?
The film begins as a political thriller, opening about the way you thought it might. In seven minutes, the assassination takes place, and two minutes after that, it gets even more interesting as we begin to explore the eight different viewpoints of the events that have taken place. The story itself covers only 23 minutes of “real time”; it’s what each person, each “vantage point,” brings to the equation that builds the suspense and weaves the story until the full truth is known. Each viewpoint peels another layer off of the immensely complex onion of plot until, finally, you can see the whole thing for what it is. I can promise you that you won’t see it coming.
Some critics panned the use of what I think is actually a surprising and refreshing bit of filmmaking: Each of the viewpoints begins with a variation on “rewinding the film” back to the starting point of noon, then carries on with each person’s whereabouts, activities, what they saw, and how they responded. This happens first about nine minutes into the film, and my telling you this is in some ways a spoiler; my apologies, but like most really well-presented mystery/thrillers, even talking about the technical aspects of the film encroach on the plot and/or clues to the mystery.
I’m not going to rave about performances or brilliant dialog, because in truth, the film is almost exclusively plot-driven. If you’re looking for something truly remarkable about the script or the actors’ work, you’re likely to rank it somewhere between “adequate” and “not bad.” Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is one time when action is actually preferable to major character development. The surprises that you find due to any character development are woven into the plot very neatly. I’ll also mention, without further spoilers, that if you’re into car chases, this film has a doozy.
Films have to impress me greatly to get five stars. Usually, a film that’s just “darn good and well worth watching” will get four stars, leaving five for true cinematic giants. I’m breaking that rule here primarily to give this movie the fair shake that it deserves. As I observed, many critics panned the film for tricks, techniques, and presentation that are, in fact, precisely what helps make it work. Just as some films use the “McGuffin” — a thing that a mystery film may focus on, falsely, in order to distract the audience from real clues needed to solve the mystery — this film uses a unique cinematic trick that helps to deliver the clues first subtly, then by turns more obviously, until the entire story is in front of us… and even then, there is more story to tell before it’s through. It may be one of the most absorbing 90 minutes you’ll spend watching a movie.
I found this in the “bargain bin” of a local store; I promise you it’s worth more than that. Again, not rated 5-star because it’s “a film for the ages,” but it is what my British cousins would call a “ripping good yarn.” Go check it out.