*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt
screenplay by Barry L. Levy
directed by Pete Travis
by Bryant Frazer If Vantage Point is an experiment, it can be pretty much considered a failure. The unconventional strategy here is to construct a narrative feature by taking multiple passes at the same 20 minutes or so in a very bad day for Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid). Barnes took a bullet for the President of the United States a year ago and has been scheduled to return to duty by working the security detail for the PotUS's speech at an anti-terrorist summit in Salamanca, Spain. And before he can speak, President Ashton (William Hurt) is nailed by an assassin's bullet--or is he?
The film replays the moments leading up to and following the shooting from the point-of-view of several witnesses (including an American tourist (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish police officer (Eduardo Noriega), and the President himself), adding crucial bits of information on each go-round that change the viewer's understanding of the events. The problem is that said events aren't intriguing enough, nor are the characters compelling enough, to sustain a our interest through a half-dozen versions of what's basically the same elaborate set-piece. It's most interesting as a one-gimmick film--which is to say that it's not very interesting at all.
Taken in the rich context of film history, Vantage Point isn't especially experimental, either. The first film I know of that tells a single story from multiple subjective viewpoints is Citizen Kane. A closer comparison to Vantage Point is Rashomon, which puts a rape and murder under the microscope as different witnesses testify to slightly different interpretations of the crime, their accounts depicted on screen in a way that suggests that, committed to memory through human experience, each conflicting variant on the real events now has its own veracity. And by the time Last Year at Marienbad came out, the whole idea of subjective and unreliable narrators had been twisted into an elegant, perhaps insoluble puzzle. Several decades on, Vantage Point has nothing so mischievous on its mind--it's not trying to reveal anything about politics, terrorism, or human nature. It isn't remotely puzzling, just frustrating. Its only agenda is to keep you in the dark long enough to hold together the silly conspiracy that it posits by deliberately withholding important story information and parceling it out a soupçon at a time.
Director Pete Travis has previously worked with Paul Greengrass, who wrote Travis's 2004 film, Omagh. You could think of his style here as Greengrass-lite, down to the requisite Shakycam, but more than anything, Vantage Point plays like television. It aspires to be one of those four-episode story arcs on "24" that keeps you guessing who the mole is inside CTU, pulling reversal after reversal so that it's impossible to tell the clues from the red herrings. But the screenplay lacks even that kind of panache, relying as it does on bland plot twists and limp (and, especially in an opening sequence set inside a broadcast truck covering the summit, vaguely sexist) stereotypes. The whole project generates a wee bit of credibility towards the end, when Travis and his second-unit crew pull off a pretty good, stunt-laden car chase sequence through Mexico City (standing in for Spain). It goes off the deep end again for the cheesy finale, though, in which the fates of all the characters intersect in gaudy slo-mo.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
"I just loved [the script]," Travis says near the beginning of his mostly banal audio commentary for Vantage Point's Blu-ray release. "It was just a movie about different ways of seeing--kind of a perfect piece of cinema." Yet he also admits that certain fairly dramatic alterations were made in the editing room, such as transplanting the film's signature car-chase sequence from the middle to the end, or trying to build tension by removing basic story information from the early reels. (Instead, we get an over-the-top reaction shot from a character who's seen something the audience won't be shown until later.) The filmmakers also vacillated, he says, on the inclusion of the exasperating video-rewind effect that zips backward through scenes every time the narrative reboots itself. The aim, of course, is to tantalize the audience, but it feels more like we're being taunted.
Some featurettes on the BD provide evidence that Travis and screenwriter Barry Levy took their material way more seriously than it deserved--to the detriment of a film that could have used a sense of humour. In "Plotting an Assassination" (16 mins., 1080p), Levy cites the Kennedy Assassination as a major inspiration for the screenplay. Not to be outdone, Travis goes the distance: "It was almost Biblical." To be fair, there's a bit more going on than I gleaned on my own viewing--a highlight of the making-of "An Inside Perspective" (27 mins., 1080p) is the playback of one character's performance in a key scene as it's seen near the beginning of the movie, and then again near the end, once we have more information about his motivation. The line reading was deliberately tweaked (shades of The Conversation) the second time around to reflect that information. (I guess it is a little like Rashomon after all!)
The third on-disc featurette, "Coordinating Chaos" (7 mins., 1080p), deals mainly with the film's stuntwork, such as a centrepiece explosion that was recorded using fifteen separate cameras and the car chase on those tough-to-shut-down Mexico City streets. (Credit stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos with getting it done.) Another "feature," "Surveillance Tapes," is an inexplicable 42-second clip of director Travis stepping into frame with a pistol and firing off a couple of rounds. Finally, there's the Blu-ray gimmick du jour, the picture-in-picture track. In this case, it's a "GPS Tracker" that lets you watch the movie with an infobar stretched across the bottom of the screen showing a map of the area where Vantage Point takes place. (Coloured dots are overlaid to indicate each character's location at any given point during the action.) A much better feature, if a lot more difficult to implement, would have been a way to watch the film's events linearly, switching at will among the various stories.
Picture quality is excellent, the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer maintaining a fine grain structure and sharp detail across all the material and assiduously preserving the crisp, high-contrast look favoured by cinematographer Amir Mokri. The dominant daylight exteriors are gorgeously reproduced while the darker interior shots maintain detail way into the shadows. Much of Vantage Point is shot through long lenses and the Blu-ray resolves the attendant depth-of-field effects nicely; the plane of focus is apparent in every shot. Mokri's cinematography arguably communicates more detail about the characters than does the script--you get a good look at Matthew Fox's insouciant stubble, Quaid's pores and wrinkles and the weathered, deep lines running across his face, and the sweat beading on the brow of a suicide bomber. The sound design, encoded in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (I listened to my PS3's Dolby Digital downconversion at 448 kbps), is aggressive, emphasizing the surround channels from minute one. The overall mix is intricate and elaborate, with crowd noises and percussive music elements regularly playing in the rear speakers and solid low-frequency effects used sparingly, and to good effect.
The disc's BD Live feature offers extra film-related material via Internet download. In "Trick Geography" (7 mins., 480p), we learn about the production's recreation of Salamanca in Mexico City--production designer Brigitte Broch actually had Salamanca's Plaza Mayor, where the film's assassination takes place, rebuilt to 75% scale in a Mexican rock quarry. That's pretty bad-ass. It would be nice to have this piece on the actual disc, where more people would see it. That goes double for "Enhancing the View" (6 mins, 480p), featuring VFX supervisor Paddy Eason talking about the film's 400 VFX shots, most of them having to do with crowd replacement. Unfortunately, the short's SD resolution, coupled with a fairly low (2-3 Mbps) bitrate, means that most of the fine CG detail it's meant to highlight and celebrate is little more than a blur on screen. Granted, the footage we're watching is generally the same stuff that's been repeated over and over, ad nauseam, in the Blu-ray supplementals. But if only one segment were offered in HD, this should have been the one.
The real problem is the ungainliness of the BD Live interface. It took me more than three minutes to download one of the shorts, and then more than another minute for it to load up and start. If I was done watching and hit "stop," I was kicked all the way out to my main PlayStation menu rather than back to the BD Live menu. I never did figure out a way to elegantly exit playback of a BD Live feature. The sad fact is, a dual-layer Blu-ray Disc holds 50 GB of data: There's no excuse for forcing viewers to waste time downloading low-quality extras that should be part of the package they paid for. (If they're ever really hurting for disc space, maybe Sony could jettison their trademark trailer gallery--Vantage Point has HiDef previews for 21, Persepolis, Prom Night, The Other Boleyn Girl, Made of Honor, Across the Universe, and Steep (but not, y'know, Vantage Point)). As it stands, I can't imagine BD Live extras will be accessed by any but the most abject of movie nerds. Originally published: July 23, 2003.