February 25, 2008

Eight Stories, One Review

Print More

Vantage Point is an entertaining flick. The story is interesting — if not slightly convoluted, the acting is good and the method by which both of these elements are conveyed is novel (for a movie) and oddly refreshing. While not something you should run out to see this second, it is one of the better thrillers that have been released recently.

The film tells the story of a terrorist attack and an assassination attempt on the President of the United States (William Hurt) at a summit in Salamanca, Spain. As President Ashton takes the podium to deliver his address, two shots take him down. Shortly afterward there is an explosion, followed by another bomb detonating under the podium. This sequence of events and the motivations and actions behind them are then explored using eight different points of view coming from bystanders, terrorists, secret service agents and news crews.

It would have been possible to tell the story in Vantage Point without this switching of perspective. The movie is not a mystery solved by putting all of the testimonies together. Instead, the various characters’ stories fit together like a jigsaw puzzle so that the audience alone sees every side to the attack.
The Tetris-like narrative is accomplished by “rewinding” time back to twenty-three minutes before the President is shot. While this style of editing provides an interesting way to present the plot, the method is not without its flaws. Most noticeable is the “rewind” sequence. At the height of an action scene, usually just before a major event, the camera will freeze and run in reverse to tell another story from the start. This effect is very interesting the first time it is used, but quickly falls into the depths of tedium when you see essentially the same sequence five times.

Another consequence of this constant retelling is that certain future plot twists become very obvious and very predictable when you see their set-up over and over. This sort of passive reveal may be annoying to viewers (and the actual twist becomes a “No Duh!” moment), but in retrospect it couldn’t be executed any other way; if the twist came as a complete surprise it would lose the anticipation necessary to mesh with the story.

Cutting away from a story in the middle of a critical moment is also frustrating because it leaves the audience in suspense several times, only to then start another story from the beginning. The narrative lurches from the climax of a story to the introduction of a new character several times, which hurts the flow of the movie. Luckily, any cliffhanger or unanswered question is resolved within a reasonable amount of time so the viewer is not completely in the dark, but is instead left with a healthy dose of anticipation. The result is a fairly engrossing experience that winds up more of an exploration into storytelling than a straight-up action flick.

That’s not to say that Vantage Point is without its violence, however. The film stacks up an impressive body count at the hands of snipers, bombers and assassins. These scenes are done very well in a Jason Bourne-esque manner so that the action is built into the fabric of the scene when necessary and never feels gratuitous.

Towards the end of Vantage Point the audience is treated to an excellent chase scene marred only by the fact that the cars seem completely indestructible (really, if you have a head-on collision with two parked cars you’d expect to lose a headlight or something).

Excellent performances from Dennis Quaid as a secret service officer and Forest Whitaker as a civilian bystander really sell the premise. Whitaker is entirely convincing as a man going through a “rough spot” with his wife and family. His optimism is actually a critical component of what makes Vantage Point work. He adds a quiet levity that helps ease the tension from the death and destruction that surrounds him.

Dennis Quaid is instantly likeable because he shares the audience’s skepticism about the events unfolding. Too often lead roles are unaware of what’s “really going on,” but Quaid’s character is always a step ahead of the audience, and this is certainly a refreshing switch from tradition. Matthew Fox also gives a good performance, but his character unfortunately channels his role as Jack on Lost. To those who don’t watch the show this means absolutely nothing, but long-time fans will regard this as a ridiculous scenario (Jack the Secret Service Agent) and not a stand-alone character. This detracts from the overall experience, but is ultimately forgivable.

All in all, Vantage Point is a success. The story, characters, and filming all work very well together, and it truly does feel as if one is watching the movie equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle. If you can get through the initial frustration of the flashback mechanic, this movie will certainly entertain you, excite you, and leave you in just the right amount of suspense.