President Ashton (William Hurt) is scheduled to make an appearance in Spain, with a number of other world leaders, to show their support of a recent Anti-Terrorism bill they have all worked on. The Secret Service is out in force to protect POTUS (The President of the United States) from the massive crowds that have assembled. One of those agents, Barnes (Dennis Quaid) is back on the job after a lengthy recovery after taking a bullet for the President a year ago. As this is his first assignment back, he is, naturally, a little shell shocked. His partner, Taylor (Matthew Fox) is confident the veteran can handle the action. An American tourist, Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) stumbles upon the ceremony, and, eager to share the memories with the folks at home, videotapes everything. A Spanish Policeman, Javier (Edgar Ramirez) tries to reconcile with his girlfriend, but she is cold to him, and only wants the bag she asked him to bring. Dejected, he begins to put two and two together and rushes to the stage as… The GNN is also on hand, to cover the press conference and the harried director, Rex (Sigourney Weaver) is shocked when her cameras capture the assassination of the President. But Barnes begins to suspect there is more going on and is determined to find out the truth.
"Vantage Point", the new film directed by Pete Travis (who comes from British Television) and written by Barry Levy, uses an interesting narrative device to frame an overworked story. But they don't seem to fully embrace the idea and the results are a mixed bag.
"Vantage" sets up its narrative device very quickly, and efficiently, giving us a jam packed opening segment. Basically, Rex and her team are covering the President's speech. As his arrival is imminent, Rex is trying to coordinate all of the different cameras, her liberal reporter (Zoe Saldana) and the network in New York. As soon as the President arrives, Rex is confident she has worked out the kinks, but she is shocked, as is everyone else, when the President is captured on camera receiving two bullets. Shortly thereafter, Barnes bursts into her control room and wants to see video. When he scans through the video, something catches his eye. Then, the film literally rewinds, showing us a few key images, presumably clues to what is going on, and a clock shows us we have rewound the last twenty minutes to just before Noon. Now, we see the same events, but through Barnes' eyes, seeing the different things he sees, learning different information.
As the story unfolds again, we move a little further in the narrative before the film rewinds and we are back to Noon. This time, we are watching the same events unfold through President Ashton's eyes. Then, we rewind again and watch the events through Javier's eyes. This happens a number of times, each story showing us slightly different information, ending slightly later, giving us a larger view of the same picture. As we watch the events unfold again and again, we learn more and more and realize maybe Barnes is right.
The audience at the screening I attended seemed to get a little annoyed by the rewinding narrative. Ever heard of Kurosawa's "Rashomon" folks? "Vantage Point" isn't as good as Kurosawa's masterpiece, but it is an interesting technique to use in this day and age. It also keeps the film moving at a fast clip. As each of these segments runs about fifteen minutes, all of the various story elements within are presented at hyper speed, to make sure we always arrive at the same point. This isn't to say they feel forced, they just move, and this makes the film seem fast paced. So, for these reasons, I appreciated the narrative device.
But towards the end of the film, when Barnes is chasing the bad people through the streets of Salamanca, it occurred to me that we missed a couple of vantage points. These segments allow each of the characters to become established in our eyes, as the segments present their point of view of the proceedings. The characters who are given full segments are more interesting and viable, even if they are a bit formulaic. One segment is devoted to three or four people, all of whom are behind the plot, only showing us their actions in the plot. This is problematic because we never learn, beyond some overused jingoistic slogans, why these people are interested in assassinating our President.
There is a 'big surprise' towards the end of the film which is more or less telegraphed very early on. Anyone who has seen more than a few thrillers or similar suspense films will likely be able to figure this out much earlier than the filmmakers want you to. This is a bit of a let down because when they reveal this big surprise, you have already figured it out and it seems more commonplace than anything else.
Because each of the stars has basically one segment to call their own, they have to develop their character at a rapid pace. This shortened focus on their individual characters helps to make them seem more interesting than they are; many of them are little more than clichés, but since we only spend ten to fifteen minutes focusing on them, these problems aren't as apparent. Naturally, as these characters interact, they make 'guest appearances' in each of the stories, and the filmmakers have smartly held back key moments, for instance, we don't see what Barnes sees in the videotape until much later in the film, of some of these characters until the attention shifts to their character or until the film is about the come to a close, building the suspense nicely.
Quaid, one of the most underrated actors working today, fares well. His back story is established during the first segment, concentrating on the GNN coverage of the event. Rex catches a glimpse of him in one of the cameras and commands one of her editors to pull up the story, rehashing Barnes previous attempts at thwarting an assassin's bullet. So, when the attention shifts to Barnes, all we need to see is his shaky hand to know he is feeling a little trepidation about his return to duty. Because he is nervous, he naturally sees assassins every where.
William Hurt also does a very good job as President Ashton. Ashton seems more self-aware, more conscious of his image and his actions on the rest of the world than we are perhaps used to. This is why he is so determined to see this agreement he has forged, an agreement to fight terrorism, become a reality. When he is presented with a plan to retaliate against the people suspected of the attack, he downplays the need to act immediately, aware that this is what they want and also aware of the consequences of attacking a friendly country. As he enters the ceremony, among signs labeling him a murderer and a terrorist, he also seems to disregard these as the necessary evils of his job.
Sigourney Weaver's role as Rex, the director of the news network feed, is a bit short, and reactionary. She has a brief fight with her reporter (Saldana) and then simply reacts to the rest of the events. The person I saw this film with wondered if part of her role had been edited, left on the cutting room floor, because it seems unnaturally abrupt.
Forest Whitaker plays the American tourist, Howard Lewis, traveling through Europe for the first time. We learn he and his wife are taking a break, to clear their heads, so Howard decides to travel and assiduously videotape everything he sees. Howard isn't a bad character, he is interesting, but his purpose is just too treacly to do the film any good. A Spanish girl, walking with her mom, accidently bumps into Howard, dropping her ice cream. Howard is apologetic, he has kids of his own, kids he misses dearly, and offers to buy her a replacement cone. Her mother declines. No, I'm not kidding, this is actually what happens to his character. Later, they are brought together in a moment that is just too farfetched to believe.
Matthew Fox is good, but he seems designed to give Barnes the requisite encouragement he needs to get past his demons. As such, his character isn't exactly well-formed.
"Vantage Point" has problems, but it also has some benefits. It benefits from a fast-pace, interesting narrative device and some good work by well-respected character actors. These benefits almost outweigh the problems in the film. Almost.