Friday, October 7, 2011

Film Friday: No Way Out (1987)

You wouldn’t think I would like No Way Out. It relies on some huge coincidences and the characters all act in some pretty outlandish ways. But I love this film. This is probably the top political thriller I’ve seen on film. Here’s why.

** Spoiler Alert -- If you don’t know the ending, see the movie before you read this review. **

No Way Out stars Kevin Costner as Navy Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell, who seduces Susan Atwell (Sean Young), who turns out to be the mistress of his boss Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Atwell is Brice’s kept-woman, but falls for Costner, until Brice kills her in a jealous rage. Enter Brice’s assistant, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton), who covers up Brice’s involvement with the death by blaming Pentagon boogeyman “Yuri,” a supposed deep-cover Russian sleeper agent. When Pritchard puts Costner in charge of the investigation, things spiral out of control. Oh and there's a twist.
Why I Buy The Coincidences
I hate to admit it, but if someone pitched me the above as a film, I would have turned them down. Why? Because it’s all based on massive coincidences. It’s a coincidence Costner gets called in to work for Brice. It’s a coincidence Brice and Costner fall for the same woman. Then Brice picks Costner to lead the investigation? Come on. Also, Costner just happens to have a friend who can protect him when they find a photo incriminating Costner? Not to mention the coincidence that Hackman, Pritchard and Atwell are all morally vacant to begin with. And then following the twist we learn that Costner just happens TO BE the Yuri they’re looking for? Give me a break.

But you know. . . none of this bothers me. Why? Because they explain it all.

The movie goes to great lengths to point out that Costner is a social climber. He went to the right schools, got to know the right people, and attends the right functions. He befriended Pritchard long before these events, and thus it’s no stretch to see Pritchard reach out to Costner when he and Brice need a new point man. That Costner has a friend at the Pentagon isn’t such a surprise either as he’s moved up through the Navy and likely has friends everywhere. With regard to Atwell, we learn at the end that Costner was ordered to seduce her. Suddenly the coincidental love triangle involving the Secretary of Defense isn’t so coincidental. That Atwell falls for him makes sense too, as Costner no doubt has been given inside information about her. And the fact Brice and Atwell are immoral isn’t hard to accept because that’s precisely why Costner came after them: because they’re susceptible.

The only real coincidences seem to be that he is Yuri and that Brice kills Atwell. But we accept those. The fact he’s Yuri makes sense because who but Yuri would take the risks Costner takes to inject himself into these events. Most people wouldn’t seduce their boss’s mistress and most would go to the police once the murder happens. Costner could have gone to the CIA for protection and ended the story there, but he doesn’t because he is Yuri and he’s playing a dangerous game to destroy Brice. It is somewhat coincidental that Pritchard tries to use Yuri for cover, but who else would he use except the Pentagon’s boogeyman? Nor does Costner getting appointed to run the investigation seem coincidental because that’s precisely why he was brought into the fold -- to protect Brice. Atwell’s murder doesn’t bother us either because we see it as an accident and it’s just how the story plays out. Had she not died, Yuri would have tried something else to disgrace Brice.

So even though the film is packed with incredible coincidences, you never really feel like they are coincidences because enough explanation is given to let you believe these events flowed logically from the intentional actions of the characters.
Why I Buy The Outlandish Characters
On its surface, this story also contains some pretty outlandish characters. A Washington, D.C. socialite with multiple lovers? The Secretary of Defense having a murderous affair? Brice’s assistant killing people to cover up Brice’s crime? Really? Yeah, really.

Atwell is a kept woman, which means her morality is already questionable. She clearly doesn’t love Brice and it’s easy to see why she would fall for Costner, especially if he had help from his Russian friends. As for the Secretary of Defense having an affair, we’re long past the point that should surprise us. Killing his mistress is pretty extreme, but he didn’t intend to kill her. He got upset and smacked her and she died in an accidental fall. This is believable because we’ve already seen that he’s an abusive man because of how he treats Pritchard. And cover ups are always in fashion in Washington.

Pritchard is the real question mark. Would he really kill to save his boss? Actually, he would. Pritchard is gay and is infatuated with Brice. He worships Brice. That doesn’t make him a killer, but there’s more. Brice is abusive. He screams at Pritchard, throws things at him, strikes him, and humiliates him. Yet Pritchard responds by blaming himself. This is classic battered spouse syndrome and battered spouses often become insanely devoted to their abusers. Add in some instability and a sense by Pritchard that he’s above the law, and it’s not a stretch to see Pritchard turn the Pentagon upside down, kill the people who can hurt Brice, and make the ultimate sacrifice to save Brice. What’s more, both Patton and Hackman sell this perfectly, with Hackman never once showing a hint of kindness to Pritchard and Patton giving an incredible performance as a man desperate to obtain Brice's approval.
Why This Twist Is So Great
Finally, we come to the twist. The twist is great because it is organic to the story, it completely changes the meaning of the story, and it’s foreshadowed constantly. Why are we shown his bag being stolen overseas? Who does he keep calling on the phone? Why is his neighbor a Russian? (As an interesting aside, the Russian safehouse is a block from a home I owned in Virginia.) Heck, the coincidences alone should have tipped us off something was wrong. This is excellent foreshadowing.

Moreover, the story works completely even without the twist. Indeed, the depth of this story is astounding. You get a solid glimpse into Washington politics, with the Secretary of Defense trying to kill a weapons program favored by a powerful Senator. On the Senator’s side you have the CIA snooping around. Against this, you have a solid love story between Atwell and Costner. The love story is made all the more interesting because the lovers are kept apart by the fact Atwell has another lover, upon whom she relies to maintain her lifestyle. Adding intrigue, it turns out that lover is Costner’s boss.

Then Brice kills Atwell. This injects all kinds of suspense as only Costner knows the truth, but he can’t tell anyone or he will be murdered. What’s worse, Brice has the power to pull this investigation into the Pentagon where he can control it. Then Costner gets put in charge of the investigation, which puts Costner in an impossible situation as he's leading an investigation which will cause his own destruction. To add even greater suspense, we are given the “ticking clock” of the Pentagon computer slowly deciphering a Polaroid which will incriminate Costner.

This is a powerful story. Costner’s emotional rollercoaster goes from happiness as he falls for Atwell, to jealousy as he learns he can’t have her, to anger as he learns his boss is the man standing in his way. Then she dies and we see Costner suffering with his grief while feeling his revulsion at having to work with the very people he wants to expose and his fear at learning they will kill him if they discover the truth. At the same time, we have an intensely emotional performance from Patton who goes from abused-spouse to insane dictator to reckless and desperate murderer. Hackman simultaneously shows us a man we think is trying to do his best for the nation, but who has brought himself down with his tragic flaw and who falls apart as the scandal overwhelms him. . . only to throw our sympathy back in our faces when he realizes he’s found a way to save himself.

What more can you ask for? Even without the twist, this is a heck of a story.

But adding the twist was a masterstroke because it changes the meaning of everything we just saw. We saw Costner as an innocent victim of circumstance. But now we know he’s the manipulator behind it all. He’s the instigator, playing a high stakes game of political intrigue. He never cared for Atwell, he even calls her “the Atwell woman” when speaking with the Russians just so we know she meant nothing to him. All that fear and disgust we thought we saw in Costner -- which made us so sympathetic -- wasn’t because of the death of Atwell or concern for her friend, it was fear he would be exposed as Yuri. And the whole time we were rooting for innocent Kevin against evil Brice, we now realize we were rooting for a traitor, whose real goal was the destruction of Brice, an apparently effective Secretary of Defense. That is an incredible transformation and a great twist.

I highly recommend this film.

47 comments:

tryanmax said...

I didn't recognize the title, but I have totally seen this movie. I'm trying to figure out where and when.

DUQ said...

Andrew, Great review! It's funny because I realize these things feel like coincidences, but then they never bothered me either because it all made sense.

Also, I think this is Costner's best film. What are your thoughts on Costner?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, What did you think of it? It's on tv all the time now. It's definitely proved it has staying power.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Good question. I like Costner a lot so long as he stays within the confines of his narrow talent. He was great in this and I liked him a lot in Silverado. I think he best role is probably Field of Dreams.

tryanmax said...

I guess it struck me as being rather elaborate, not that elaborate is a bad thing. It never seemed too coincidental to me, though.

I must have seen it on TV, then. I can tell you I definitely wasn't watching it in 1987.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the fact it doesn't strike you as coincidental is the strength of the writing, because it really is highly coincidental when you look at it on paper. It's on screen that they've been able to give it enough explanation to keep people from feeling that it's too coincidental to be a credible story.

Ed said...

I admit it, I like Costner. I've liked him in most of what he's done. I haven't always like his movies ("Waterworld" stank), but I like him.

I thought this was a great movie. It's got great characters, solid plot, and it keeps the heart pounding with the action even as it never goes over the top like a lot of other 1980s action movies.


I wouldn't call it elaborate either. It has a complex plot compared to much of what's out there today, but that's the point to political thrillers. Modern political thrillers have become nothing more than some group inside the White House wants to kill the president and some secret service agent needs to figure out who the traitor is. That's become very dull. "No Way Out" has a genuine story behind it and real intrigue.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I've seen the movie several times, and always enjoy it. When I first saw it, it seemed somehow familiar. It was on the second viewing that I realized it was an updated, modernized, thriller version of The Big Clock. The movies (and the original book) couldn't be much different in style and tone, yet both were excellent.

As for Costner, as long as he sticks to the aw shucks, sly fox, reluctant hero roles, he is in his groove. He lost me for awhile with Dances with Wolves (pretentious, politically-correct), and I do have to get past the fact that he slept with Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. Field of Dreams is still on my top 10, and he held up well against Sean Connery and Robert De Niro in The Untouchables.

LawHawkRFD said...

PS: The movie would only be about half as long today, because someone at CSI or NCIS would use the supercomputer, wave his hands over a ten-foot wide high def screen, and instantly come up with a 3-D hologram of Costner from the Polaroid shot. And somebody would say "what's a Polaroid?" LOL

tryanmax said...

I said elaborate isn't a bad thing! :P

RE: CSI/NCIS/"what's a Polaroid?"

I'll construct a GUI that will hashtag the twitter in order to ping the information from the wiki.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I generally like Costner too, except that he has a very narrow personality on screen.

I agree completely that this movie has a ton of believable action that never really stops once it starts. It contains numerous "slow-motion" chase scenes as he's pursued and pursues people in various locations, and it always goes back to the ticking clock.

On modern thrillers, I agree. The idea of a traitor within the White House seems to have become a required cliche. Unfortunately, we are in the Age of the Formula and everyone just does what everyone else has already done. It's kind of sad. I like the fact this movie doesn't follow that formula.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I genuinely like Costner, but he's had some bad role. I didn't like him as Robin Hood because he couldn't carry the accent. Like you, Dances With Wolves bothered me because of its political correctness. I did like Bull Durham because I saw it before Tim Robbins and Sarandon went over the hill.

His more recent films have done nothing for me though.

I've never seen The Big Clock, but I've always meant to. When I find a replacement for Netflix, I need to look that up!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, On the issue of modern "crime solving," I agree. They've really turned crime scene investigation into magic rather than science on those shows now anything is possible... instantly even. I think they are really ruining the crime drama with their BS because there's no "detecting" left.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I have no idea what you're talking about! LOL!

A Polaroid... it's something we had in the times before we had fire! ;)

Yeah, I don't think being elaborate is a bad thing either, provided it makes sense. In fact, most of my favorite films are elaborate.

tryanmax said...

That was a spoof on CSI/NCIS "techspeak." It doesn't mean anything, much like most of the mumbo jumbo they spout on those shows.

LawHawkRFD said...

tryanmax: I was just saying that to myself this morning while I was shaving. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Ah, I see -- CSI speak! LOL!

The real problem with something like CSI/NCIS is that people are believing the garbage they spew and now they think the cops should be able to do anything once they find a crime scene. The truth is that forensic evidence is largely a guessing game, very little of it is scientific, and even less of it is meaningful. Yet, people now think you can just send the lab into a room and they can decided to 100% certainty who is at fault.

It's actually become a problem in courtrooms.

Outlaw13 said...

Didn't Sean Young show us the goods in this movie?

That's about all I can recall and this movie, that and Costner's character was Yuri.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, Yep. Correct on both points! LOL!

tryanmax said...

LawHawk: I hope you're okay. That can be unsafe while shaving.

Andrew: I read something lately that was talking about the same thing. The article was explaining how not everybody gets a full autopsy like on TV. I can imagine defenders are exploiting that break between fact and fiction to raise unreasonable doubt to seeming reasonable.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Both sides exploit it actually. The prosecution plays up their labs to juries who are willing to believe these labs are infallible and are reaching 100% certain conclusions (neither of which is anywhere near the truth) and defense attorneys try to compare the scant evidence produced to what people see produced on film... "why don't they have more."

Unfortunately, it's twisted people's expectations and it's turned what should be a very serious examination of scientific evidence into a circus.

I've generally found juries are very thoughtful, but this issue has really twisted their thinking and bent the system.

Ed said...

tryanmax, Sorry, I didn't mean to imply you were against elaborate stories.

tryanmax said...

You know, I'm the only person I know that actually wants to get called for jury duty. Guess who it will never happen to?

tryanmax said...

Ed, don't fret. That's what this guy -- :P -- was for.

LawHawkRFD said...

tryanmax: The jury pool is supposed to be by random selection. But I think they were out to get me. I got called four times in five years. Nobody allows a lawyer on a jury, but I'd have to spend a day or two before they'd get to me and dismiss me. One time I was almost seated as an alternate juror before one of the attorneys realized his mistake.

T-Rav said...

Interesting review, Andrew. I haven't seen this one (don't worry, I skipped over the twist ending part), but you've piqued my interest. That's all I have to say; I'm headed out of town for the weekend and am leaving now before you can start throwing things at me for not having seen this. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think you'll like it. Watch it and then let us know what you think! :)


Have a nice weekend!

AndrewPrice said...

UPDATE: My next Big Hollywood article is finally scheduled for Monday... though they changed the title.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - this was actually the first film I remember with Costner is a lead role. I have it on DVD and have viewed it numerous times. All the actors did a reasonable job. As always, Gene Hackman did a terrific job, and it is one of the best twists I can ever remember on film. Great review!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! It is one of the better twists.

Interestingly, I actually saw this film twice before I saw the twist -- both times I was called away right after he walks away from Hackman and didn't know there was more coming.

Imagine my surprise when I saw it a third time and found out there was more! LOL!

(P.S. Hackman really is good in everything he does!)

tryanmax said...

Indeed, "Hackman" could not be a more inappropriate name for such a great actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Isn't that the truth! I don't think he's ever turned in a bad performance and he's also done some really iconic roles as well. Very impressive.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew!

No Way Out is one of my favorite political thrillers.
For a Cold War thriller it has really held up well.

Another one I like with Hackman (as a good guy) is Enemy Of The State.

He never fails to disappoint.
Just saw Loose Cannons again a few days ago and Hackman was a riot.
Of course, any flick with Hackman, Ackroyd and Dom DeLuis is bound to be a riot, LOL.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben!

I agree that this has really held up. Even though the Russians aren't our primary enemy anymore, like they were when this was made, the themes this film hits really are timeless and you could imagine them remaking this movie today and only changing a few names to make it work. Actually, you could probably even leave it as the Russians since it doesn't delve too much into the geopolitical reality at the time.

I like Enemy of the State a lot. Hackman was great in that too! But then he's been great in everything!

I have to admit I haven't seen Loose Cannons. This has been the week for people mentioning films I haven't seen! LOL!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hanen't seen a comedy/action/crime film with Gene Hackman?

I'm shocked! Shocked I say!

Your penance will be to watch it post haste! Do not pass go, do not collect $200.00 (unless you give me a 50% cut, in which case you may also pass go). :^)

Waitaminnit! Your name wouldn't happen to be Yuri would it? Hmmm?

AndrewPrice said...

Why yes, Yuri Johnsonovich. How did you know? LOL!

I'll check it out Ben, I swear. I just need to get a replacement for Netflicks -- my list of things I need to watch is growing fast. Argh!

Thanks for the recommendation! :)

CrispyRice said...

Your review is making my head spin, Andrew! I have seen this, although not for ages. It's about the only Kevin Costner movie I can stomach, LOL. I'll put it on my "to watch soon again" list!

ScottDS said...

I believe tryanmax was referring to a technobabble scene like this one. :-)

I've never seen the film so I don't have much to comment on. I think the second Hot Shots! film parodied the scene in the limo.

And I miss Gene Hackman! I just watched The Conversation again. Good stuff and considered by some to be a distant relative to Enemy of the State.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I just watched it again this week and I'd forgotten how gripping it was. You won't be disappointed.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, They did indeed parody the limo scene in Hot Shots.... and they did a great job of it! LOL!

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Costner has a great resume... hard to believe given his "narrow range of talent" as you rightly say.

Besides those mentioned I highly recommend Mr. Brooks with Costner as a serial killer. I also liked Tin Cup and Open Range (Wyatt Earp too).

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I think it goes back to the question of do we want actors who disappear into roles or actors who play themselves? I think there's room for both and some of the most successful play themselves, e.g. Schwarzenegger, Costner, John Wayne, Tom Cruise, etc.

Costner sticks to what works for him and he's had some pretty important films as a result.

Mr. Brooks was probably his biggest divergence from his normal character and it was definitely an interesting movie. I still don't know what to think about his character. It's an interesting portrayal.

ScottDS said...

You said we can chime in on old reviews... :-)

I just watched this on Amazon Prime - I enjoyed it though I didn't care for the final twist at the end. Personally, I didn't think it was necessary at all. I bought all the coincidences and that was one too many.

And yeah, if this film were made today, it'd be over in 10 minutes. One character would call up a photo, say "Zoom and enhance," and that'd be it!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think the twist is actually meant to explain all the coincidences. If you think about it, everything that happens are things he manipulated with the exception of him being chosen to the come be a liaison and then Brice actually killing the woman -- but that was Plan B. Plan A was probably blackmail or someone else killing her.

John Jameson said...

This is the best analysis of "No way out" that I have found online. Reviewers (often after seeing the film only once) complain about the coincidences and the preposterous twist, without appreciating how the latter explain the former, and the foreshadowing throughout the film.

One small correction: Farrell/Yuri does not refer to Susan as "the Atwell woman" - his interrogators do. Furthermore, they find him at an unmarked grave, presumably Susan's. He makes it clear that he was ordered to seduce Susan, and he obeyed. However, he may have fallen in love with her in the process.

Whether he did or not is left open, but there is a sharp contrast between his time with her and his experiences after her death. The sailing yacht is a metaphor for freedom, and his more innocent days as a younger officer. Also Yuri/Farrell finds in Susan a free spirit, whereas he has been used as a pawn. At the end of the film he has lost his appetite for espionage or Russian heroism. No wonder.

AndrewPrice said...

John, Thanks! And thanks for the corrections. This is an excellent film that was very well constructed by the writers. It's unfortunate that people think that the twists and seeming coincidences are too much to believe. Still, the movie has found its audience and it has proven staying power.

Anonymous said...

Who played the Janitor in this film?

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