There’s a critical distinction between originality and artifice. So, too, is there a difference between art and pretension, or, if you wish, being unique and trying to be different.
“Vantage Point” tries to tell a standard story in a different way. Its problem is that despite its energy and urge to entertain, its method turns out to be an exercise in pretension, disintegrating, finally, into a loud chase scene with all the requisite thuds and mayhem.
It does not begin that way, for in the first long minutes of Pete Travis’ thriller, we are treated to an exciting and riveting scene in a TV control room as a director, played by Sigourney Weaver, calls camera shots, shouts at her reporter on a live assignment covering a presidential summit on terrorism. Suddenly, the director calls for file footage when she spots Secret Service Agent Barnes, played by Dennis Quaid. It’s the same agent who was wounded in a previous presidential assassination attempt. Now he’s back on the job. Does he still have it? Has he lost his nerve? It is a superb primer for audiences who have never had a chance to see how live TV is realized on the spot.
We are in Salamanca, Spain, where the U.S. president (William Hurt) is present and about to meet another leader in a spirit of world harmony. Suddenly, from the control room, horrified directors and producers see the president fall, shot through the chest by a sniper. All hell breaks loose, bombs explode. We see it all on their monitors.
Now back to the same time from another point of view — that of Agent Barnes. More hints. And then, stop again, rewind, and let’s see the scene from the camcorder of a tourist played by Forest Whitaker. More clues accumulate, from each vantage point; pieces of a paranoid, terrorist puzzle fall into place.
Same old story
For a while, we are captivated, but by the time we get to the fifth stop-action sequence, we begin to feel that despite the revelations, the technique used to deliver the narrative is more contrived than immediate; more pretentious than novel. In the process, we lose threads of the story, and most grievously, we note the absence of motive, the relationships between the killers. Evidently, Travis and writer Barry Levy feel all we need to know is that the terrorists are enemies of peace.
If the aim of this “Rashomon”-“Groundhog Day” technique were to explore nuances of motive or psychological dispositions, we might have been treated to a special thriller. But here, I could not shed the suspicion that the creators wanted to try something different just for the hell of it. After all, they had the tools: first-rate digital editors, explosions, sound effects, moments of pure terror, and some top-notch performers. (Quaid and Weaver are superb). But to what avail?
In a way, “Vantage Point” is guilty of some coy cheating. By placing the prime emphasis on artifice, the writer and director can evade their duty to create compelling characters with any sense of depth or motivation. Yes, we meet a traitor, but we never learn why he defected. About all the filmmakers prove is that this tense narrative has good guys and bad guys, cowards and heroes.
For all its pumped-up volume and flashy cuts, “Vantage Point” is, as the singer sang, just a different way to tell the same old story.
DIRECTED BY Pete Travis
SCREENPLAY BY Barry Levy
STARRING Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Matthew Fox and Zoe Saldana
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes