Here’s the thing: if you are going to base your film entirely around a central gimmick—whether formal, stylistic or narrative—you had a) better make sure that there is a damn good reason for doing so and b) you had damn well better be sure it pays off. And you pretty much have to go all in if you are going to go down this track – there’s no halfway, and there’s no turning back.
It’s the whole risk versus reward thing: when it works – say, in, Memento—it works spectacularly, and the result can be mind-blowing and memorable. But when it fails – as, well, here in Vantage Point – your film is relegated to the slag-heap of cinematic misfires, condemned with mockery or just plain indifference.
Vantage Point’s rather unambitious and unimaginative gimmick is to tell one central story eight different ways (supposedly – I counted five before the film completely went off the rails), from the view of eight different characters, each seeing and comprehending events from a different angle. And for the first two-thirds of its run time, it sticks to the plan. The film keeps backing up on itself, showing and reshowing the key event – an assassination attempt on the President coupled with a terrorist bombing—with each character then diverging off onto his/her own particular path in the aftermath. With each retelling a new tidbit of information is revealed, and the main story is moved a little further along in time, with all the separate characters moving closer to some sort of improbable convergence, at which point I guess we’d expect some grand revelation and resolution.
The rather obvious idea, straight from screenwriter Paul Levy and director Peter Travis in various interviews on the DVD, is that from each view point we’ll see the events a different way – our perception of actions and motivations will continuously shift, will be colored by whichever character the film is then following. We will be left guessing about what really happens until the final frame, presumably, when we put all the pieces together and tie all the narrative strands into one on our own, post-film.
And like I said, this is sort of what the film is heading towards in its first two-thirds (which, to be fair, is at moments very tight and tense and shows potential to be a decent thriller) before completely and abruptly abandoning its one trick, its whole raison d’etre, in favor of a straight ahead narrative which jumps between all the different action and characters indiscriminately, before concluding in a climax that’s almost audacious in its idiocy and convenience.
It’s almost like the screenwriter and director grew tired of the film they were making halfway through and decided to graft a straight up actioneer onto the end of it, hoping that would suffice for audiences, and also hoping that they (the audience, but I guess the director and screenwriter too) would forget everything that happened in the first hour. Either that, or they suffered a complete and total collapse of confidence in themselves and their gimmick and chose the easiest and most craven way out. Either way, it’s almost rather brilliant the way the film betrays and sabotages itself as it comes down the home stretch.
The real problem, though, is that even before it reaches that point, Vantage Point doesn’t have much to stand on or recommend itself. The central event tying everything together has no underpinnings, political or otherwise, pointing to some greater significance. It sort of plays out like an extended episode of 24; events drained of any real significance in favor of being hollow plot devices, mere engines for forward motion. Somehow this seems to work for 24 (which, also, of course, is based around a central gimmick), but 24 is aware that it is a cliffhanger serial with no greater ambition than to entertain and keep people on the edge of their seats.
Vantage Point, on the other hand, operates under the pretension of being something more profound, and here it simply fails straight out of the gate, because this whole shifting view point trick serves no purpose other than padding out what is a barebones and most uninteresting series of events. Watching it all unfold, again and again, there is no qualitative difference between any of the characters or what they see.
This is no Rashomon-like inquiry into the nature of truth, this has nothing to do with the elusiveness of coherence or agreement in the face of subjectivity. No matter whose view point we are seeing the action from, we are always seeing the same thing in exactly the same way (the director’s protestations to the contrary ringing hollow on the commentary track). It’s just utterly confounding that the film would make this big fuss over all these separate narratives and not do anything worthwhile with them, at least anything that couldn’t be done by just letting the film play out straight. I have a high tolerance for all manner of stupidity in movies, but complete lack of necessity is not one of them.
In the final tally, Vantage Point, despite a few excellent action set pieces (a great car chase reminiscent of the Bourne Identity), is mostly an absolute disaster any way you look at it, if not because it betrays itself and its early promise, then because in the end it simply cannot justify its sole reason for being.
Vantage Point arrives on DVD with a separate disc of three features and, inexplicably, a downloadable version of the film (why anyone would need this at the ready on a laptop is beyond me). The 30-minute “An Inside Perspective” is a fairly standard backslapping roundrobin, all of the actors and production folks praising one another effusively. The somewhat more interesting “Plotting an Assassination” focuses on the screenplay, and its journey from page to screen. Though it is, to be sure, quite remarkable that first time writer Barry Levy’s spec script was tapped for a major studio release with a high caliber cast, it still doesn’t offset the overall amateurish and unimaginative nature of what he wrote. Both he and director Peter Travis trip over themselves to oversell the complexity and intelligence of Vantage Point, but, well, the proof to the contrary is on the screen. The short “Coordinating Chaos” deals with the stunts and effects and is negligible in both content and interest.
Peter Travis’ obligatory dry and matter-of-fact commentary track is a nice complement to his dry and matter-of-fact directorial style. This is not a compliment. Mostly he is just telling you exactly what you are seeing on the screen, with occasional asides into some background details. I was actually quite interested to hear what he would have to say about the very noticeable break in the format and “style” of the film at the one hour mark, when the whole separate viewpoint trick is summarily abandoned, but there’s nary a mention of it. I at least expected a simple explanation, if not a spirited defense. Alas, like everything else in Vantage Point, yet this was yet another failure to capitalize on an opportunity.