Remember the 1985 movie version of the Parker Brothers whodunit board game Clue, with its pre-DVD-era gimmick of multiple endings? Well, Vantage Point is like that, only instead of multiple endings, it gives us multiple beginnings. Oh, and Vantage Point, to the best of my knowledge, isn't supposed to be funny.
Set in Salamanca, Spain, during an international counterterrorism summit, it depicts an assassination attempt on the president of the United States from the perspective of five witnesses and, in the movie's pièce de résistance, the members of the terror cell responsible for the attack. It's a cast of characters the likes of which haven't been seen together since Airport '79: the hard-bitten TV news director (Sigourney Weaver) who barks things like “Leave the editorializing to the people who get paid to have an opinion”; the hero Secret Service agent (Dennis Quaid) back on the job for the first time since he took a bullet in the line of duty; the wide-eyed, conveniently camcorder-equipped American tourist (Forest Whitaker) on his first trip to Europe; and old POTUS himself, a freeze-dried specimen of platitude-espousing, Roosevelt–era statesmanship stiffly played by William Hurt. And I haven't even gotten to the terrorists — a cabal of suitably brown-skinned jihadists straight out of central (Asia) casting.
Vantage Point, which was directed by Pete Travis from a script by first-timer Barry L. Levy (a former TV development executive), wants to be the Rashomon of presidential assassination thrillers, but it's more like watching an entire season of 24 stripped down to its freeze-frame cliffhangers and recaps of last week's episode. It all goes something like this: A crowd of journalists and onlookers jostles into a central square; the mayor of Salamanca delivers some opening remarks before ceding the stage to our commander in chief; and then, before he can get two words past his lips, the prez goes down for the count, followed by a series of bomb blasts and much chaotic scrambling.
Then, as if God himself had hit the rewind button, everything we've just seen flits by in fast-reverse and we proceed to see it all again — and again and again and again — through another character's eyes. A “23 minutes earlier” title card signals the start of each new chapter; by the grace of the movie's editors, the cycle unfolds in something less than real time, though you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The idea here, of course, is for each successive piece of Vantage Point's narrative jigsaw to give us some crucial information we don't already have, or to change our perspective on something we thought we already knew. But for every scene that fulfills that goal, Travis and Levy give us a dozen others that carry the distinct feeling of déjà vu. (Hurt stunt-falls so many times that he seems to be auditioning for one of those MedicAlert bracelet infomercials, or a Gerald Ford biopic.) And often when Vantage Point does show something new, you end up wishing it hadn't, as in a romantically charged rendezvous between one of the terrorists and her patsy boyfriend that looks like an outtake from an Enrique Iglesias music video.
Here is a movie to stop the auteur theory dead in its tracks. Clearly, the British-born Travis was recruited for Vantage Point on the basis of his excellent 2004 debut feature, Omagh, which restaged the events leading up to and following a devastating 1998 car bombing on a crowded retail street in the titular Northern Irish town. Produced by Paul Greengrass, and conceived as something of a companion film to his own Bloody Sunday, there wasn't a moment in Omagh that rang false. There's not a single one in Vantage Point that rings true. The movie gets off on the wrong foot pretty early with the scenes of Weaver directing her TV broadcast — its solemn, charisma-free on-camera reporter would be swallowed whole by the if-it-bleeds-it-leads cynic we see reporting live at the beginning of George Romero's just-released Diary of the Dead, to say nothing of Christiane Amanpour. Not that the scenes of Quaid arriving back at work amid much whispered speculation that he might choke under pressure seem any less bogus.
This is all foreplay, it turns out, for an orgiastic third-act car chase (complete with lots of sub-Greengrass shaky-cam) during which the movie's multiple story threads converge in a way that makes Paul Haggis seem like a master of Balzacian realism. As car chases go, it's not half bad; but nothing in Vantage Point quickens the pulse as much as the realization that, with each successive turn of the wheel, we come one step closer to the end.