The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of political thrillers. In these movies the people who ran the U.S. government were every bit as shady as you feared, and they were always up to something bad. Even when they weren’t the actual villains they were always somehow complicit in making the heroes suffer.
Movies like “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Parallax View,” “Executive Action,” “Winter Kills” and “All the President’s Men” (a real-life story structured like a thriller) tapped into audiences’ growing suspicion that the people in charge were corrupt at best, and possibly malevolent or insane.
Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie
(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 26 Sep 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (General release); 2008)
Now, in an era of general dumbing down, comes “Eagle Eye,” a thriller in which sophisticated technology drives a story that proves so simplistic you may want to hurl your Blackberry at the screen.
Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) is an underachieving Stanford dropout who works in a copy store clerk. He lives in a rundown Chicago apartment owned by a kindly old foreign landlady because movies always have these sorts of landladies. After his overachieving twin brother dies, Jerry returns to find his apartment full of weapons, ammunition and barrels full of chemicals to make explosives. Since he doesn’t remember ordering any such items, he quickly surmises something is amiss. His phone rings and a voice on the other end tells him he’s going to be arrested in 30 seconds. The FBI shows up, somehow managing to time the arrest perfectly, none of them having gotten stuck in traffic or been delayed through some bureaucratic miscommunication (this is the government, after all).
An FBI agent (Billy Bob Thornton) tells him he’s now a terrorism suspect. Jerry escapes when the voice on the other end of that fateful phone call hands him his freedom in an admittedly hilarious, outrageous way.
On a street nearby, a single mother named Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) gets a phone call and hears that same neutral voice that’s guiding Jerry. Rachel is told her son will be killed if she doesn’t do exactly what she’d told. Before long she and Jerry are thrown together and on the run.
Fed up with being bossed around by a disembodied voice, Jerry refuses to follow any more orders. It’s here that he learns that the voice belongs to a government supercomputer called ARIA that can tap into nearly anything—phones, computers, video monitors and even JumboTrons—and make any technology it wants do its bidding or simply go haywire.
At this point it seems like “Eagle Eye” is going to be a thriller about pervasive technology that has robbed people of their privacy and civil rights. Fair enough. Not long after ARIA’s identity is revealed, however, the movie reveals itself to have been a political thriller all along. ARIA wants to wipe out the pesky executive branch that keeps it from serving the people’s best interests, and it’ll do so when they’re all gathered at the Capitol for the State of the Union address. Not only is ARIA power-mad, it has a weakness for drama as well.
The best political thrillers have always taken aim at those in power, reflecting contemporary fears about the American system, particularly the military-industrial complex. “Eagle Eye” targets a fictional villain that current technology can’t even produce—an artificial intelligence that has both reasoning power and big, fat ego. The filmmakers don’t trust audiences to understand the power that live human beings can wield, and misuse.
Polls show Americans have rarely felt so negatively about their government. Why couldn’t “Eagle Eye”—with the Iraq war, the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Halliburton, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the state of the economy, fuel prices and the Patriot Act, to name just a few examples—find something based in reality on which to hang its story? Computers shouldn’t scare people. Politicians and corporations should.
Rated PG-13 for making anyone miss the 1970s.
One star: Lousy
The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic
The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don’t have to.