No matter how nobly or ambitiously anyone (including the filmmakers) may try to describe the new thriller Vantage Point, the multiple-perspective film is far more Groundhog Day than Rashomon. Essentially a 23-minute story revisited multiple times in order to reach suitable feature-film length, Vantage Point purports to look at a single event from different points of view, but it really only has one, which means that each time the film “rewinds” to the beginning, audiences will likely be less interested in learning “the truth” than in leaving the theater.
In the film, Dennis Quaid (In Good Company) plays Thomas Barnes, a secret serviceman called into action by colleague Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) to help protect President Ashton (William Hurt) during a diplomatic photo-op. Unfortunately, Ashton is shot by an unseen gunman, and during the subsequent melee someone activates a series of explosions. Before long, an elaborate network of conspiracies unfolds, involving Ashton, Barnes, Taylor, a civilian cameraman named Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), a mysterious man named Javier (Edgar Ramirez), a cop named Enrique (Eduaro Noriega) and his girlfriend Veronica (Ayelet Zurer).
My biggest problem with the film is probably the amount of imagination it invests in conceiving the complicated centerpiece assassination plot; God help us if terrorists ever achieve the level of sophistication ascribed to them by Hollywood screenwriters. But regardless of its impact or influence on potential evildoers, director Pete Travis’ film is so riddled with nonsensical and pointless developments that it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the so-called truth that is buried in its tangle of story lines. I cannot help but liken Vantage Point to a feature-length set piece from one of the last two Bourne installments, except unlike in Paul Greengrass’ films, none of the motivations or character details are established well enough to justify our investment, much less our interest in what unfolds.
In terms of the characters, each of the actors has precious little to do emotionally on screen; in other words, one hopes they saw the thinness of their characters as a challenge or opportunity for each actor to create a believable person by him or herself. Quaid’s character Barnes benefits the most from film’s otherwise minimal expository dialogue, but essentially Fox’s Taylor is the respectful replacement who took over Barnes’ Presidential post, Whitaker’s Lewis is a father and husband on a sabbatical, and Noriega’s Enrique is a jealous lover torn between his police duties and his romantic insecurities. That we’re never really told anything more about any of these characters is not the problem; rather, it’s that we never become invested in anyone’s point of view, which renders the film’s entire structure pointless, begging the question why Travis and co. didn’t just edit the film in chronological order.
Meanwhile, an opening scene in which the events are captured by a CNN-like news channel speaks to the manipulable nature of “truth,” but almost all of the sequences use virtually identical camera angles. Like a Rubik’s Cube of images that are arranged and then rearranged – sometimes even further from the facts than before – to form cohesive story lines, certain details are denied to the audience, such as what a character is seeing or reacting to, and none of that enhances the story’s mystery or suspense; rather, it irritates the audience, because they know that eventually they will see what they did, so why not show it to them now?
Mind you, the filmmakers responsible for Vantage Point never said that they wanted to remake Rashomon for a new generation, or even suggested that they wanted to call into question the idea of “the truth.” But that film had at least one concrete point of view – director Akira Kurosawa’s – where Travis’ film has none; and since the whys and hows don’t really matter, either from a motivational standpoint or a cathartic one, there’s no reason to invest in any version of the film’s central story until it finally bothers to show and tell all of it at the same time.
There are additional lapses in logic – such as why a mother would not only leave her child in the middle of a terrorist attack, but go far enough away that the poor girl would have to cross a busy freeway to reunite with her – but they seem less culpable as narrative flaws than necessarily contrived plot points, and overall the film is competently executed, all of which may indeed sound like faint praise. That said, Pete Travis may have in him some day soon a Bourne Ultimatum, or better yet a Rashomon, but Vantage Point is not it. So perhaps the best lesson that can be learned from the film is the adage first spoken by philosopher George Santayana: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In other words, when a story is told right, as it was with Rashomon, don’t try to retell it, but if it’s told wrong, as with Vantage Point, then learn from it, move on and tell better ones in the future.