The Rashomon effect in Pete Travis’ Vantage Point

Vantage Point

Vantage Point is an awesome technical achievement, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. Director Pete Travis and writer Barry Levy demonstrate excellent plotting, spatial sense, editing, logistics, and continuity. As a thriller it moves forward relentlessly, and feels comprehensible, self-contained, and very satisfying.

It is structured around a single gimmick, but it’s a good one. As one of the cinematic children of Rashomon (including The Usual Suspects and Courage Under Fire), it retells the same event from multiple points of view. An assassination attempt on the US president in Spain is foiled by veteran Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and civilian Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker). The advantage of the structure is to withhold information and create suspense. The first time we spot Lewis, from the hyper-cautious Barnes’ perspective, he seems to be acting fishily. But when we soon see the events from his point of view, we learn he’s an innocent. But the structure works the other way; almost a full hour passes until we see fellow Secret Service agent Taylor’s (Matthew Fox) side of the story, and the simple fact of his prolonged absence causes the audience to suspect him. At about the one-hour mark, the rigid, neat structure breaks down and we begin to see slivers of each character’s experiences mixed together, as they all draw to a single time and place for the climax.

Vantage Point
A turkey in every pot and a thriller in every multiplex

But the crucial falling-down point of the movie is the trumped-up assassination plot itself, which is seemingly crafted for maximum storytelling drama and not real-world terrorist efficacy. Would an actual successful assassination be so hi-tech and complex? This plot relies on lots of wireless technology, split-second timing, blackmail (coercing someone to perform key tasks better off done by someone the plotters could count on) and at least two inside men (one of whom must have spent almost a lifetime preparing). This is how terrorism works in the movies. Real-life assassins tend to be lone gunmen who manage to slip through security with their sheer unpredictability, and terrorist attacks like Oklahoma City and 9/11 didn’t depend on technology more complex than fertilizer and box cutters. While we’re on the subject, what are these particular assassins’ motivations, exactly? It becomes clear they don’t wish to kill the president but to capture him. Whatever they hope to accomplish, they seem quite pleased with themselves.

Vantage Point
OK, everybody skootch in a little… say cheese!

All of these questions are negated in the end by a news broadcast that claims that a lone assassin has been shot and killed. This conclusion plays to the public’s lust for conspiracy theories than continues to plague 9/11 (an inside job? please, spare me) and the JFK assassination.

Extra observations:

• One of the biggest plot twists is spoiled in the trailer.

• Barnes is a cliche we’ve seen before, played by Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire.

• There’s an oddly tiny role for Sigourney Weaver as television news director Rex Brooks. Was there more intended for her character? Perhaps she took the role for an opportunity to spend a few days in Spain.

• Hey, it’s Hollywood’s go-to middle eastern guy, Saïd Taghmaoui (from The Kite Runner and the Iraqi torturer in Three Kings). He does turn out to be a villain, but so do two white dudes, so the movie totally isn’t racist.

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