Over the past two decades, the freer and faster flows of information afforded by advances in computing and communications technology have had an unprecedented impact on the way we live and work. Networked computing and the integration of disparate systems have allowed companies to streamline and better coordinate their business processes, bringing about significant productivity gains and cost savings. The ability to conduct business unhampered by the considerations of geography or time has also fueled the growth of the global economy, offering companies unparalleled access to new markets and trading partners. Through the numerous media touchpoints, such as television and newspapers, the average person has timely, sometimes almost instantaneous, access to news and information. And through the development of interactive technologies, particularly the Internet, the average person has been granted the additional abilities to filter, manage, process, and communicate to others the reams of information made available to them.
On the other hand, in addition to solving age-old problems, these freer and faster flows of information have also created some new ones. The growth of networked computing has increased the vulnerability of systems and the processes they administer, as demonstrated by the spread of computer viruses, such as last week's 'naked wife' virus outbreak. Advances in computing and communications technology have also provided new opportunities for criminal elements to facilitate illicit activities, such as the use of the Internet by Osama bin Laden and other such groups to plan and execute their terrorist activities. Even traditional media outlets, with their 24x7 access to news and information, are having measurable influence on the events they cover-- witness the institution of publication bans and press blackouts on high-profile criminal cases, or the outbreaks of school-based violence in the days following the Columbine and, more recently, the Santana High School tragedies. This dark side of the 'information revolution', how the easy access to information has opened a Pandora's Box of possibilities, is explored in writer/director John Herzfeld's latest film, "15 Minutes", making this cautionary tale one of the few compelling and thought-provoking films of the early part of 2001.
The story begins with the arrival of two Eastern Europeans in Kennedy International Airport, Emil (Karel Roden) and Oleg (Oleg Taktarov). Though they are both in New York City to track down one of their old 'business partners', Oleg sees it as an opportunity to live the American Dream and become a film-maker like his idol Frank Capra. Within hours of arriving stateside, Oleg steals a video camera and begins religiously taping their activities, playing 'director' to their 'movie'. They quickly locate the home of their estranged comrade, which results in Emil committing a double murder and covering up the crime by setting the place on fire.
The fire is promptly investigated by New York Fire Marshal Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns of "Saving Private Ryan"), who quickly finds evidence that the fire is not as it seems. However, the case also catches the attention of top-cop Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro of "Men of Honor"), a homicide detective who has been elevated to celebrity status by his consistent track record and his involvement in a few high-profile cases. With his media connections, such as tabloid journalist Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier" fame) and reporter girlfriend Nicolette (Melina Kanakaredes of "Providence" fame), Eddie steals the spotlight from the less media-savvy Jordy.
However, despite their opposing styles, they end up working together to track down Emil and Oleg, as well as a potential witness to the double murder, an illegal Czech alien named Daphne (Vera Farmiga of "Autumn in New York"). Meanwhile, the depraved Eastern European duo continues their wanton killing spree throughout the city, all dutifully recorded by Oleg's camera. However, once they realize how American culture seems to revere its criminals with People Magazine covers and multi-million dollar book deals, they elevate their criminal activities to an entirely new level. To find fame and fortune for themselves, they decide to kill someone famous and document it for the world to see...
Taking a cue from the title, the most obvious point being made by Herzfeld in "15 Minutes" is how fame has become commoditized at the expense of moral considerations by a relentless desire for 'eyeballs', whether it be a member of John Q. Public 'sharing' their troubles on "Jerry Springer", or a media outlet in search of higher ratings. This is exemplified by an early scene where Hawkins gets into a heated debate with his producer (Kim Catrall of "Sex and the City") about the need for 'bad news' to draw audiences in, even at the expense of such 'hang-ups' as 'journalistic integrity' or 'the truth'.
However, as the film progresses, Herzfeld makes a number of pointed observations on how the easy access to information, as well as the ease by which one can steal the media spotlight (provided the material is 'bad news'), undermines every aspect of society, from the role of government to the legal system to the day-to-day lives of the general public. The killing spree of Emil and Oleg is partially inspired by the sensationalist news coverage of a high-profile murder case, who observe that in America, 'no one is responsible for what they do', particularly if they can 'spin' their story to blame someone else. Throughout the investigation, Eddie and Jordy must constantly keep in mind the public perception of their work, and keep a tight lid on the information they feed the media. When Jordy's role in the investigation gains front-page prominence, he finds his work compromised by a news story questioning his integrity in a prior arrest. Hypocritically citing the public's 'right to know', Hawkins brazenly airs a depraved video tape of a murder on national television, and when Emil is arrested for his crimes, his lawyer immediately begins courting the media to portray his client as the 'real victim'.
In addition to its heady assertions, "15 Minutes" is also an entertaining thriller, one where nothing can be taken for granted. The film could have been yet another by-the-book police procedural, where the 'buddy cops' collar the bad guys after a few obligatory car chases. But instead, the script is full of surprises, some major and some minor (an unconventional death scene near the end is one of the film's great moments), upending the usual mix of clichés and conventions that one would expect in a lesser film. In addition, a number of the film's action set-pieces are absolutely riveting, particularly a running gun battle through the streets of New York, a sequence where Jordy finds himself trapped in a burning building, and the film's taut ending.
For "15 Minutes", Herzfeld has gathered a top-notch cast. Headliner De Niro is perfect as the no-nonsense veteran detective, while Burns does a decent job as a rookie to the media-manipulation game, even though his character suffers from the occasional and inexplicable lapse in judgement. Newcomers Roden and Taktarov are effectively chilling as the film's villains, the former being a scheming and psychotic loose cannon, while the latter being both charming and naive. Grammer is sufficiently oily and hypocritical as a tabloid journalist who would sell his soul for the right story, while Kanakaredes acquits herself as De Niro's love interest. Supporting these main players are respectable turns by Avery Brooks ("Deep Space Nine") as Eddie's partner and Charlize Theron (who was in Herzfeld's previous effort "2 Days in the Valley") as the owner of an escort service.
"15 Minutes" isn't perfect, but it comes pretty close. What could have been another generic buddy cop thriller ends up being a caustic, thought-provoking, and often satirical look at the excesses of the 'information society'. While some viewers may find the violence and imagery used by Herzfeld in making his point somewhat disturbing, what ends up being most disturbing of all is that it's probably not too far from the truth.