"Roshomon" meets "Crash" in this 90-minute political thriller, which is really 15 minutes of action rewound and replayed from the perspective of eight different individuals. The setting is Salamanca, Spain, and the occasion is a summit meeting of the world's biggest Islamic and western nations who have agreed to meet for the first time in order to jointly address the problem of terrorism.
"Vantage Point" seems most alive in the opening sequence, which is narrated from inside a mobile broadcast center. Sigourney Weaver plays Rex Brooks, a seasoned pro who directs her reporter, cameramen, and in-studio technicians the way a quarterback calls the shots in a hurry-up offense. She snipes at her reporter (Zoe Saldana) for getting into political punditry, and wonders aloud when she sees a Secret Service agent at the U.S. President's side whom everyone thought still inactive after he had taken a bullet to protect the most powerful man in the free world, "Why didn't we know about this?" Weaver really nails this part, so much that you wish you could see more of her throughout the film. In one of the bonus features we're told that all those monitors in the broadcast center were really green screens, and that makes her reaction shots all the more amazing. When they watch the President recoil from two shots, then hear an explosion and she tries to calm her reporter down so she can report, it's powerful stuff. So is what happens moments later, when another explosion takes out the whole façade of the main building at the Plaza Major (which was really a set built in Mexico).
Then, at segment's end, the camera rewinds while we hear rewind sound effects, back to the same time when we joined Weaver. Only the perspective changes.
The Secret Service Veteran
Dennis Quaid plays the main man in this quasi-Cubist narrative. He's Thomas Barnes, a now-jittery veteran who sees assassins in every quick crowd movement and camera flash. Quaid also nails his part, conveying a mixture of fear and confidence, paranoia and common sense that makes it easy for us to see all the gray areas that are layered in this narrative. We watch him see flutters of curtains in the building across the way, hear him phone in his suspicions to an unresponsive command center, and watch his reactions after the President is shot. But he's unbelievably polite, whether demanding video from the broadcast control center or from an American tourist whom he saw filming everything on his camcorder, and for a guy who's taking medication to calm his nerves, that doesn't feel right at all.
Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker plays Howard Lewis, a recently separated man who's out to experience adventure, and ends up thinking he knows who killed the President in a chaotic setting. Half of his attentions are directed to trying to tell people what he saw, and the other half are aimed at trying to protect a little Spanish girl who bumped into him and dropped her ice cream as a result.
Then it's that dreaded rewind again. Once was fine. Twice was bearable. But come on. We get the point. It's going to be a multiple rewind telling of this story. Must we really go through the backwards tape every single time? It's one of two major annoyances in this film, the other being first-time screenwriter Barry Levy's preoccupation with that little girl. That whole tourist/little girl thread really could have been removed from the film without great loss. On the other hand, we're told, at some point, that a trusted Secret Service agent has gone "rogue," and there's never sufficient development to explain why. We watch two brothers involved on the fringe of these terrorists, and come to realize that one really might be a local cop who really might have been rushing the stage to help, rather than hurt the President. But in times of terror, any young man with a beard is suspect. More on the core of the plot, rather than the periphery, would have made this a stronger film.
William Hurt plays President Ashton in convincing manner, though his role is exceptionally small. He's probably grateful for the rewind structure, or else he would have been on-camera for just minutes. But as Jason P. Vargo complained in his theatrical review, "not much makes sense, logic wise." Apparently the White House is chronically deficient in devising exit plans, because there's no clear course that's taken once tragedy strikes. Even small things are disturbing when it comes to logic. This scene is like the World Trade Center collapse, with people rushing everywhere, explosions, shots, and so on. Amid all this chaos a relatively calm and lucid Howard Lewis takes the little girl he rescued and hands her off to a police woman. "Look after her. I'll be back," he says. And the woman nods and accepts the girl. End of shot. I've run into more frantic and uncooperative cops at airports when there were no shots, explosions, and stampeding people to clog their attention spans. Then there's the funniest line in the film, albeit an unintentional one, which is also tied to logic (or the lack thereof). As Agent Barnes reaches the President, whose face is covered with blood, he asks, "Are you injured?"
I can't go into any more points of view now without giving away too much of the plot, but I'll summarize the problems I had with this film. One is the artifice itself. The first time I read a short story or novel with a structure like this, I was impressed, because it seemed fresh and unique and it underscored how different perspectives can create different "truths" or pose different sets of concerns and problems. Same with "Roshomon." It was a narrative structure that seemed right for challenging morality, a virtual advertisement for the philosophical theory of relativism. But morality isn't being challenged here, nor even truth. Levy simply uses the structure to withhold information, so that the full thrust of the narrative can be appreciated only in total. That's the theory. In practice, because so much time is spent on fringe perceptions and characters and not enough on the central dramatic question of why one agent would go bad, it feels artful, but unsatisfying. And if I see a film literally rewound again any time soon, I'm quite sure that I'll throw something at the screen. Better not invite me over for a movie. Matthew Fox, Bruce McGill, Said Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Eduardo Noriega, and James LeGros round out the rest of the main cast. The acting is competent, the Mexican location cinematography is compelling at times, but the structure wears thin, and it breaks down, really, with perspectives blurring in the third act.
"Vantage Point" looks pretty decent in 1080p, and I saw no compression artifacts from the AVC/MPEG-4 codec transfer onto a 50GB disc. Some scenes looked a little "soft" on the edge detail to me, and the colors seemed slightly desaturated throughout--too much so for my taste. There was also more grain than I would have expected for a slick movie like this. Aside from that, the fleshtones were natural, black levels were generally good, and the overall look of the film was pleasing to watch.
The featured soundtrack is a lively Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with additional options in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1. There's good distribution of sound across all the channels, with plenty of rear-speaker involvement and the kind of deep, rich sound one would hope for in a film that's so dependent upon the emotional effects of hearing shots and explosions. The audio handles ambient sounds nicely, and the dialogue also seems rich and natural-sounding.
So many bonus features seem gimmicky these days, but Sony found the perfect gimmick feature for a film like this: a GPS tracker exclusive to Blu-ray that enables you to chart each characters location and vantage point throughout the course of the film. It's useful for those who might be confused, or for those who are into double checking the writer and director's logic. But it's still a one-play feature, if you ask me.
The non-exclusive bonus features include a 25-minute making-of extra, "An Inside Perspective: Interviews with the Cast & Crew," which is unique because it calls it what it is, rather than a "making of" feature. But it feels like a pre-release promo, without much in the way of depth. "Plotting an Assassination" zooms in on the script and gives us answers that should have been developed better in the film itself. Don't watch this 15-minute feature first, because it's chock-full of spoilers. "Coordinating Chaos" focuses on the stunts and special effects, but it's even shorter.
Director Peter Travis's commentary is pretty standard, with a few more pauses than I would have preferred and not nearly enough anecdotes. He's apparently not anecdote-minded. Mostly, he concentrates on how this shot or that were accomplished. The only other bonus feature on this disc is a gag "deleted surveillance tape" featuring the director doing a very bad impersonation of a bad guy with gun.
For those who are into BD-Live (and have a Profile 2.0 player with Internet connection) there are a handful additional downloads, but one of them on trick photography takes longer to download than it does to play. Clearly, people are still working out the kinks in BD-Live. There's not much real gotta-have content yet. It's all superfluous, and not terribly interactive this time around.
"Vantage Point" is the type of film that will blow some people away, while others will be left thinking there's too much rubble, and feeling like maybe they've just been had.