By Corey Birkhofer
Vantage Point, USA, 2008
Directed by Pete Travis
I’d like to start this review off with a question: Does anyone even know about this film? The reason I ask is, for those of you who don’t know, I am currently living in Gifu, Japan, where the selection of films from the west that make it to rental here are not always the most well-known or popular back home. Having only read Wikipedia’s plot description of Vantage Point to refresh my memory, I saw there that the film got a 95% at Rotten Tomatoes and was overall a box office success when it was released in February of 2008. Though after seeing the film, I am unable to fathom how that could be the case, why was I suckered into watching Vantage Point? Two words: Matthew Fox.
For those of you who are fans of Lost, let me just tell you, it’s even bigger here in Japan. So if any Lost fan sees Matthew Fox’s face on a DVD cover at the store here, they’re going to rent it. Being a die-hard fan of Lost myself, I got suckered in by the same Hollywood tactic. Although the premise of the film is a little too reminiscent of 24, I liked the idea of a film that employed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon effect of showing the same event from multiple perspectives, giving the viewer the responsibility of sifting through the facts and coming to their own conclusion. Vantage Point tries to one up Rashomon, however, in that it gives us eight different perspectives of an assassination attempt on the president while he speaks at an anti-terrorism rally in Spain. Now that you know why I gave Vantage Point a chance, let me get to the real heart of the matter. Why didn’t I get this film?
Let me start at the beginning. What’s the film about? I think the explanation over at Wikipedia gives a much better rundown of the plot of the film, but even so, the Wikipedia breakdown is difficult to follow. Let me ask the more important question then: Why is this film so difficult to get? Let’s jump back to Kurosawa for a moment. For those of you who haven’t seen Rashomon, Kurosawa revolutionized the world of cinema in 1950 when he made a film that showed the attempted rape of a young woman from four different and conflicting perspectives (the attacker, the woman and her chivalric samurai husband, as well as a nameless woodcutter). Rashomon rocked the cinema world with this concept, and its influence is still felt today, as evidenced by Vantage Point taking on the same technique in the telling of its own story.
So, aside from Kurosawa being a master of storytelling, why was he successful where Vantage Point‘s director, Pete Travis, was not? In my opinion it comes down to quantity over quality. Kurosawa gave us four sharply distinct perspectives, whereas Vantage Point gives us eight. This is simply too many perspectives to sift through and form a conclusion. Instead of piercing our hearts with a shocking event shown to us a few times, we get the same moments leading up to the assassination attempt ad nauseum, until we don’t even know why we wanted to see the film in the first place. Though some of the characters in the eight vantage points do have intriguing stories, less important side characters whose perspective of the same event we have to sit through mute the impact of their struggle.
Travis would likely argue that every vantage point in the film is there to service the story, but after seeing the same event eight times, I think even he realized audiences might be annoyed and want to move further into the story instead of getting the 10 minutes leading up to the attack, rewind, showing another character’s point-of-view of the 10 minutes leading up to the attack, times eight. By the fourth or fifth time of finally getting done with seeing one perspective, I prayed I would be allowed to go further into the story, only to get forced back to watch the same 10 minutes from another character’s perspective.
So who exactly are these characters? Let me say that the cast is a pretty impressive ensemble, with a ton of well-known faces, including Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Fox, Sigourney Weaver and even William Hurt! Talk about pulling out all the stops. The other three perspectives of the event are from some newer faces, played by Ayelet Zurer, Eduardo Noriega and Edgar Ramirez. But as awesome as the cast is in Vantage Point, we’re all smart enough to know a great cast can never save a lackluster story.
Aside from the lack of originality in its opening, at least the film starts off with a strong inciting incident that propels us into the story. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of films without a strong inciting incident and if you want a film to draw your viewer in, a strong inciting incident is definitely going to help that along. However, even more important than a strong inciting incident is a CLEAR inciting incident, which Vantage Point definitely does not have. Though the first couple perspectives we see are interesting and very realistically shot, the power of the attack gets more and more muted as the film rewinds us eight times over. With so many characters and perspectives to sift through, it was hard for me to find my “that could be me” character that I wanted to see grow throughout their arc. Instead, everything became a mess as I was introduced to too many perspectives, some from characters that the film never revisits, which left me all the more frustrated.
The only one that seemed to have any real beginning/middle/end arc was Quaid’s character, Thomas Barnes. Barnes is a burnt out Jack Bauer archetype working as a secret service agent taken out of the field after stopping a bullet meant for the president several years prior. Still shaken up from the shooting, he is extra paranoid when the president speaks out against terrorism in a huge outdoor coliseum filled with spectators. To Barnes, everyone is a potential suspect and we see just how paranoid his being shot has made him. His integrity is questioned by his partner Kent Taylor (Fox), who feels it’s still too early for Barnes to be back in the field at such an important event. We later find out Taylor has shed his American ties and is working in alliance with the terrorists from the inside. His goal is then to stop Barnes, who is the only real threat to their plans to assassinate the president.
From Barnes, the characters get more and more thin as you go down the line. Forest Whitaker’s character, Howard Lewis, had great potential to lend an interesting perspective from which to see the event, as he plays a tourist on vacation in Spain. At the event with his video camera in hand, he records the anti-terrorist rally in the minutes leading up to the explosion. After the attack, Barnes, who is hell-bent on capturing the people responsible, quickly confiscates his footage, and from there, Howard is camera-less and has therefore lost the eyes from which to show us his perspective. The film shows us several more sympathetic perspectives to try to get us to come along for the ride, but ultimately each character is only given their few minutes before we’re pushed on to the next point-of-view.
Though I tip my hat to the filmmakers in their attempt to center an entire film around one shocking scene, by giving us too many perspectives, the impact of the event is muddled; we are unable to sympathize with any one character, feel any anger towards the antagonist or, most importantly, want to see the protagonist change. In short, you can’t center a story around one single shocking event if you erase its impact by showing it to us too many times, with characters who never have a chance to grow. Quality Over Quantity 101. This is something Kurosawa realized in Rashomon. So if you haven’t seen either film, I would recommend: watch Vantage Point first, then watch Rashomon and tell me what you got out of both.
Now in the interest of not repeating myself eight times over, I’ll wind this down and wait to hear back from you. If it sounded like I was repeating the same gripes over and over in this review, maybe Vantage Point has had more of an influence on me than I realized. Time to go watch a movie that I actually get. Hello, Rashomon!
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com