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Please Don't Rewind 

Creative writing teachers use a short hand to warn storytellers away from false sentiment and suspense. 'Don't put a puppy on a freeway," they advise. 'It's inevitably contrived, it's a cheat, and it leaves your audience feeling baldly manipulated." The filmmakers behind the current thriller Vantage Point were obviously C students. They don't put a puppy on a freeway, but they do introduce us to a beautiful 6-year-old girl. And then they put her on a freeway. Written by Barry Levy and directed by Pete Travis, Vantage Point isn't at all about that little girl, who just happens to walk into a crowded square at the wrong time, gets separated from her mother and ends up dodging speeding vehicles at the film's car-crashing climax. So that makes her predicament all the more counterfeit. Rather, the film is a political crime flick set against the backdrop of international terrorism. The president of the United States (William Hurt) has come to Salamanca, Spain, to attend a multinational conference aimed at uniting the Western and Islamic worlds in the War on Terror. He is attended by a phalanx of advisers and Secret Service agents including Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), who is back in the detail for the first time since taking a bullet for the president in an earlier assassination attempt.

The president we meet here is an amalgam of recent figures. He is hated abroad the way George W. Bush is hated, and his staff is made up of hammer-fisted right-wing connivers that recall Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld. But in his own pronouncements, the president evinces the instincts and principles of Bill Clinton. Why he'd choose to surround himself with the people in his inner circle is one of many dumb features in this movie.

The film unfolds in a series of start-overs. The opening ceremonies of the conference are staged outdoors in Salamanca's beautiful Plaza Mayor, an open space surrounded by buildings on four sides " a place perhaps not impossible, but surely difficult to secure. That the Secret Service would allow the president to enter this site in the first place seems highly unlikely. But he does, and shortly later he's shot, and the installed stage on which he's been standing explodes. Cut back 23 minutes to Barnes' nervousness about rejoining the president's personal detail. The film's title refers to a series of rewinds that show us the action from six different perspectives: that of Barnes, a news producer (Sigourney Weaver) and her crew, a Spanish policeman (Eduardo Noriega), a tourist (Forest Whitaker), the terrorist leader (Said Taghmaoui) and his cadre of vicious associates, and the president himself. But despite the shifting points of view, this picture is hardly Rashomon. Vantage Point is not at all about the elusive nature of truth. Rather, the viewpoint shifts are merely devices for adding detail. For example, Barnes and the TV producer don't see a female terrorist (Ayelet Zurer) throw a bomb under the stage, but the cop and the tourist do.

Vantage Point has a terrific cast that has captured eight Oscar nominations for acting including wins for Hurt and Whitaker. It has a bang-bang pace that sustains the tension and action from the get-go to closing credits. And it even, for a few fleeting moments, threatens to be about something, as the president's advisors push him to launch a missile attack on a terrorist hideout in Morocco and the commander in chief resists for reasons that seem politically astute and thus thematically instructive. Unfortunately, the film isn't really about such weighty matters of military and diplomatic decision making. And it isn't about anything else, either.

So, in the end, we feel cheated. Instead of something truly inventive, we get a series of B-movie clichés. The filmmakers are probably proud of some of the surprises they deliver, but with each individual who reveals himself to be something different from his initial appearance, our capacity for suspension of disbelief weakens. Whitaker's tourist character is a complete red herring. You could remove all his scenes without changing anything but the running time. Whitaker is a great actor, but with his considerable bulk, it's just plain ludicrous that he could keep up with a foot pursuit of a fleet suspect by two fit security agents. And in the end, we get that hoariest of Hollywood conventions, the harrowing car chase. We've seen it all before, and the fact that it swirls around a sobbing little girl vaults the closing action from merely boring all the way to embarrassing.

click to enlarge In Vantage Point, tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) tries to help Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) piece together an assassination attempt. - 2008 COLUMBIA PICTURES INDUSTRIES
  • 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries
  • In Vantage Point, tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) tries to help Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) piece together an assassination attempt.
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