Film Scouts Reviews

"Murder at 1600"

by Karen Jaehne

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This is a producer's movie. Which is to say, it's an action movie with complicated sets where artistic interpretation counts for little and production design counts for lots. The names Arnon Milchan and Arnold Kopelson incite fear and envy in the hearts of Hollywood agents. Both of them have been honored as "Producer of the Year" by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), which means they sell tickets. Theater owners like that.

I point this out, because there is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to producing a movie, and an over-produced movie can diminish other things - like acting and story. "Murder at 1600" is a big action picture that works, so these guys did something right. Probably a lotta things right - a lotta things that cost a lotta money.

Story: A woman is murdered in the White House. The spin doctor instructs the White House press corps: "There are two words you must avoid in speaking of this - 'woman' and 'murder'." And that, folks, is why the only thing we think comes out of Washington is lies. Wesley Snipes is the most distrustful character in this hot political thriller with its finger on the pulse of America's distrust of the Presidency.

Down and dirty politics in D.C. has met its match in Snipes. They are an even match in "Murder at 1600" because Snipes' character goes beyond his usual run, jump, kick, shoot, blast - kaboom - "Yo, my man, Wesley!!" In short, Snipes has arrived at the level of stardom that can allow him to play a civil war history buff. Not quite an intellectual, but the dude's got brains.

The script is an unblinking rollercoaster ride, worthy of those paranoid Seventies flicks like "The Parallax View" and "All the President's Men." The plot brings together history and detective work, action and intelligence. For clever casting, "the usual suspects" include Alan Alda as the President's National Security Advisor and Daniel ("Murder One") Benzali, whose bald pate gleams menacingly, as Head of the Secret Service. We get the set pieces: a moment of truth in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial - and a chase scene down the Mall toward the Washington Monument's threatening phallic power. And any Washington movie must have a moment in the Oval Office in which a major lie gets told and a chase scene that lands us in the black enclave of Adams-Morgan, where the murder rate makes Washington the murder capitol of the world.

We get all of that, but without the cliches. Part of this is due to Snipes graciously sharing the screen with Diane Lane, who plays a Gold Medal sharpshooter turned Secret Service agent, who risks her career - a very un-Washington thing! - and then her life. Diane Lane gets to show her stuff, and she's entirely credible as Agent Chance - just a little too pretty from what I remember in D.C.; female Secret Service agents are usually built like tanks. But a tight derriere and pert nose shouldn't hold a girl back from equal opportunity action!

That tyro of the silver screen Clint Eastwood has made two Washington thrillers. Although the most recent one was saddled with a lame, cliche-driven script (I like William Goldman, but "Absolute Power" can't touch "Murder at 1600"), Eastwood once played a great Secret Service agent in "In the Line of Fire." Secret Service Agents seem to make good stories. Why do we cotton onto these movies about power-plays in D.C.?

Because we're worried about the honor of America. No, I'm not kidding. I think the appeal of movies like this are like open-heart surgery on the national conscience. And this movie lets you know why. When Alan Alda blows up at the President and lays down the single, most basic lesson of loyalty and honor on the field, he's speaking to us. And here's what he says: you never leave your dead for the enemy. You collect your soldiers, you bring them home, you honor them for putting their lives on the line. Now why's this such a big issue?

Is Alan Alda's anger likely to go over the heads of about half the audience? The half that doesn't remember the Carter Administration may squint through his mad scene. But that's what the murder is all about - putting the President out of office for being a wimp. Think back. When did the idea of wimp first emerge? Early Eighties. Yup, wuss, a word of the Eighties - and a reason to tunnel under Washington into the White House and set things Right.

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