Vantage Point feints at importance, but ends up as trivial as an episode of 24 — and as entertaining. It builds up enough momentum that when the screenplay starts to go south and gaping holes start materializing in the plot, it’s able to steamroll through the problems and race breathlessly to the finish. My gut fought my brain as, during a car chase around the end of the second act, I had a thought to the effect of “this is pretty stupid,” and then consciously chose not to care. I was having too much fun.
The format lends itself to 24 comparisons. A single event — the apparent assassination of the American President (William Hurt) at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain, followed by a series of explosions — is seen from several different perspectives. That is to say, the event is actually replayed some half dozen times, with each iteration peeling back a layer of the mystery. We first see the tragedy on monitors in a news van, then from the point of view of a Secret Service agent (Dennis Quaid), then from the perspective of a local cop who may or may not be involved in something nefarious, then through the camcorder of a sightseer (Forest Whitaker), and so on. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know one of the big twists, which the advertising shamefully gives away as if it were nothing. Fortunately, watching it play out is part of the fun.
There’s a certain amount of contrivance that’s almost inherent in a structure like this. The film very strategically withholds information — we’ll see Quaid’s character stare in horror at something on a camera’s viewfinder, for example, but not until two “segments” later do we learn what it is he saw. If you’re annoyed by this sort of manipulation, Vantage Point may be a frustrating experience; it’s even more awkward the couple of times the movie can’t manage to stay ahead of the audience. For the most part, though, the film hums along on the strength of its gripping, nightmarish conceit and its technical proficiency. With an expert cast, a serviceably intriguing mystery, well-timed bursts of action, and a great musical score, this is slick Hollywood fun — engaging enough that I found myself content not to think too hard.
This is frustrating for me to write, because I’m generally resistant to characterizations of films as “dumb fun,” on the theory that films that are genuinely fun are rarely dumb (though they may be “silly” or even “absurd”). But I can deny neither that Vantage Point worked for me, nor that it falls apart under scrutiny. It purports to indict the American media for unquestioningly parroting the government line on matters of importance, but these attacks are so irrelevant to the rest of the film that they seem like potshots. It makes lazy allusions to the Bush administration and Iraq (“We have to act strong,” the President is told in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, his advisors suggesting an attack on a random Arab country in retaliation; “no, we have to act strong,” he replies) that amount to nothing other than “look how superior this fictional President is to your real one.” Some of the gaffes in the plotting are downright bizarre, with Forest Whitaker’s mini-storyline getting its own segment despite adding literally nothing to the film.
And yet it works. I recognize the movie’s flaws, and yet I don’t think that I am being too kind here. It’s easy to pick apart an action movie. It’s much harder to produce one this clever, fast-paced and involving. I was having such a good time that I told my inner film critic voice to pipe down for a while. That has to count for something.