Vantage Point

dir: Pete Travis
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What these kinds of flicks usually have going for them is momentum. It’s not brains, it’s not character, and it’s certainly not depth.

Vantage Point is essentially a Bourne-type film without the advantage or the anchor of a Jason Bourne-like character. To compensate for this they fracture the narrative, replay the central event what feels like fifty times, and then break out of the temporal loop by moving forward at break-neck speed to the big action climax.

Initially, we watch the occasion of an anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain, from the confines of a news van covering the event to the side of a jam-packed plaza. The US President (William Hurt) is here on this historic occasion where the leaders of many nations are banding together to assert that terrorism is bad, m’kay? He is guarded by Secret Service agents (Matthew Fox and Dennis Quaid), one of whom recently took a bullet for him, or at least thinks he did. An American tourist (Forest Whitaker) watches the event through his video camera, uncomfortable with the idea of trusting his memory alone. Or is it because the camera has some plot significance later on?

I wonder. The news crew producer (Sigourney Weaver) coordinates the footage being shot by multiple cameras at this historic event. As the president steps up to the podium, a shot rings out. Everyone goes berserk, but the producer keeps trying to coordinate the camerawork. After the shot, the president is sped away, and there is an explosion in the distance, before an even bigger explosion tears apart the square where the love-in was being held.

Dramatic, terrible goings-on and doings transpiring. But then the story winds the clock back to exactly 12.00pm, and shows exactly the same event, from a different person’s perspective leading up to the devastating explosion.

Wow, no-one’s ever thought of doing that before.

Due to the lack of imagination on the part of most reviewers, they’ve felt obliged to dig up and dust off the old Kurosawa standby of “it’s like Rashomon crossed with an episode of 24”. The 24 reference is certainly apt, in that it’s an over-amped, hyper-caffeinated representation of America and Its Place in the Contemporary World, but the Rashomon one really gets my goat, as the phrase goes.

It gets my goat, shaves it down with a rusty blade, covers it in wasabi and then has sex with it before flinging it into a pit full of fire ants.

Rashomon wasn’t about how one central event is viewed differently by different people because of their difference in perspective, or Vantage Points. Rashomon was about how different people lied about a central event for different reasons, and how hard it is to find out the truth of an occurrence since the world is full of liars.

Vantage Point shows the event from a character’s perspective, but obscures crucial plot details not from the protagonists, but from the audience. It’s the equivalent of the final few seconds of a television program leading up to the commercial break where someone looks at something and reacts in a shocked manner without letting us know what it is. All will be revealed as long as you continue watching after these exciting and convincing ads. Don’t you dare switch channel.

What also transpires is that with our limited perspective, with each sequence we’re meant to get a better idea of what all the main players actually did or are doing when we think they’re doing particular stuff. A man watches his girlfriend with another man, and suspects infidelity or something worse. The same scene played later on reveals that something worse is something worse than he or we could have imagined, and it involves an elaborate conspiracy to kill the President, kill lots of other people, and to sabotage Christmas permanently.

The only character given enough time to be more than a thin type is the Secret Service agent played by Quaid. Only he has the luxury of a character arc, and that’s still pretty thin. He goes from shaky to shakier to heroic to utterly calm. Now that’s some deep shit right there.

Hurt as the President is almost comical. In one of the sequences leading up to his apparent assassination, he jokes with staffers about whether they’ve finished a speech for him, or whether they’d prefer him to just wing it, since he’s famous for his off-the-cuff remarks. It’s a fairly amusing (and tame) reference to the current incumbent of that vaunted seat of power, but the further digs later are more pointed, if harmless.

Just after the attack, the President’s chief of staff (Bruce McGill) urges him to order a strike on some village in Morocco, even though it’s pretty clear it has nothing to do with what’s going on. The President makes an impassioned plea about how that’s what their enemies want, and how he’s going to use this opportunity to forge a new way forward away from the mistakes of the past… and then BAM! Someone bursts in and starts killing people left right and centre.

Said Taghmaoui is an actor I’ve loved in pretty much anything I’ve seen him in ever since his film-stealing performance in Three Kings, where he asked a trussed-up and about to be tortured Marky Mark “What is wrong with the King of Pop?” These days he’s in great demand, since there is a constant demand for Arab looking guys to play terrorists. He’s a step up: he get’s to play terrorist masterminds. He’s as coolly charming and evil in this as he is in any of his villainous roles, but it’s not like he’s got that much screen time.

Honestly, on paper a flick like this sounds clumsy, and ludicrous, but, for what it is, Vantage Point generally works. The action set pieces are very actiony, and the shaky handheld camerawork, aggressive soundtrack clearly ripped off from the Bourne films and the feverish pitch get the adrenalin pumping. It’s a flick, like any carnival ride, enjoyed more as a ride than as a provocation to thought or as an experience analysed afterwards.

No, I’m not making one of those “It’s okay if you just switch off your brain” kind of statements, because I generally find the people who make those statements tend to be people whose brains are switched off as a matter of course anyway.

What I’m saying is that the implausibilities, coincidences and plot holes tend not to bug as much when your heart rate is raised and you’re desperately hoping that little girls trapped in the path of out of control ambulances, and grizzled old Secret Service agents don’t die, and that the vicious terrorists get their comeuppance. We don’t have time to find out why certain people are doing what they do (that would be the luxury of motivation), especially a character who seems to be committing a tremendous act of treachery for no reason given at all, we just see what they do and what the consequences are in the short term.

I enjoyed it. Maybe I’m a bit ashamed to say that, just a little bit. Sure it’s shallow, and pretty disposable, but I enjoyed it whilst I was watching it. It simultaneously asserts the idea crucial to Hollywood films that the position of America and Americans is faintly embarrassing in the outside world, but that no-one gets the job done like Americans either. The repetition doesn’t drag too much, and keeping the momentum going isn’t beyond the best efforts of the director and editor, no matter how unlikely the sequences or the set up might be.

It’s good old fashioned, President-killing fun.

6 times I’m surprised, despite the many opportunities, why none of the baddies got to scream “Allah Akhbar!” before doing their nasty thing out of 10

“The beauty of American arrogance is that they can't imagine a world where they're not a step ahead.” – Vantage Point