Arlington Road Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999


Contrary to popular belief, terrorism is not a new nor an unprecedented phenomena. As historians can document, it is actually quite ancient in its origins.

- Frank Hagan, "Introduction to Criminology"

Hope Davis and Jeff Bridges

On April 19 1995, at 9:02 am, the north face of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was vaporized by a fertilizer-based car bomb, killing 168 people, making it the largest mass murder in American history. The unsettling images of the destruction, along with the subsequent trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry L. Nichol, served as a wake-up call for the American people. Up until that point, many were oblivious the existence of right-wing extremists on American soil, who had the ability and the motivation to strike at the heart of the country. Since the Oklahoma City, a number of scripts floating around Hollywood have attempted to weave fictional action-thrillers around the elements of the tragic event. However, very few of these scripts saw the light of day, as the major studios did not want to be perceived as exploiting the tragedy. However, one script incorporating elements of the Oklahoma City bombing did finally get green-lit-- "Arlington Road". Despite raising some interesting questions with an engaging premise, it ends up suffering from a script that relies on too many 'narrative cheats' and ultimately fails to stand up against closer examination.

Terrorism has historically been assumed to be a left-wing and/or revolutionary phenomena. In reality, there are right-wing groups, enforcer groups from governments who use terrorist tactics, and criminals (who are neither left-wing, right-wing nor revolutionaries) who will use terrorist tactics simply to gain an advantage.

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges of "The Big Lebowski") is a political science professor who specializes in teaching a course on terrorism. In addition to bombarding his students with images from terrorist attacks and the discomforting manifestos espoused by radical groups, he espouses his own theories on the existence of a large and unseen underground movement that is behind recent terrorist incidents and the government's inability to deal with the threat. Part of the reason for Faraday's pessimism is the tragic loss of his FBI agent wife three years prior, who was killed during a mishandled assault on a suspected terrorist hideout. Despite his troubled past, Faraday still manages to find respite in his cozy and quiet suburban existence with his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) and his girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis).

Terrorism is assumed to take place whenever there are legitimate grievances and amending these conditions will bring about a cessation of terrorism. In reality, the most repressive, unjust societies have historically been the freest of terrorism. Most terrorism has been directed either at democracies that ironically offer some legitimate channels for change, or at totally ineffective authoritarian regimes that wouldn't know how to change even if the emperors agreed. Terrorism rarely surfaces in totalitarian systems that offer no legitimate channels for change, because in those regimes, state terrorism has, Bassiouni style, repressed public displays of civil disobedience and terrorism. Even when countries have changed to meet terrorist demands, terrorists tend to continue with new demands being placed on the government. The terrorist demands are not issue oriented but power oriented. The issue is simply the vehicle being used to strengthen their relative position.
Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack

However, Faraday's peaceful home life is soon turned upside down with the arrival of his new neighbors: Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins of "Nothing to Lose") and his wife Cheryl (Joan Cusack of "In & Out"). At first, the Langs seem very friendly, especially after Faraday saves their son following an accident involving fireworks. However, as Faraday comes to know his new neighbors better, a number of inconsistencies about Oliver's work and where he went to school come to light.

Although terrorism is viewed as being highly effective, this is only the case if it is part of a larger strategy. Indeed, terrorism as one component of opposition, was responsible for the creation of Algeria, Cyprus, Ireland, Israel, Tunisia and the United States.

His suspicions soon get the better of him, and Faraday begins digging into Oliver's past, even asking for help from his wife's former partner at the FBI, Whit Carver (Robert Gossett). As his clandestine investigation unfolds, Faraday becomes increasingly convinced that his new neighbors are somehow connected to a recent spate of terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, he also finds himself trapped in a 'Cassandra complex' in which nobody else believes him-- not the FBI, his girlfriend, or his son - and chalk up his accusations to work-induced paranoia.

Terrorists are viewed as idealists, but his is clearly not so. They are power oriented, not issue oriented. Humane behavior is generally sacrificed for the revolutionary goals of power acquisition. This makes the differentiation between the so-called criminal terrorist and the political terrorist very difficult, for they are both willing to harm others to get their way - one wants money and the other wants power.

"Arlington Road" treads through familiar conspiracy-thriller territory, and through the use of high-contrast lighting, odd camera angles, and brisk pacing, director Mark Pellington effectively creates an atmosphere rife with paranoia and suspense. Unfortunately, Ehren Kruger's script falls down through its use of numerous narrative cheats to artificially heighten the tension and move the investigation along, which become more obvious and unbelievable as the story develops. For example, as Faraday uncovers new clues to his mysterious neighbor's background, Oliver seems to always be hovering around behind him. And like a similar contrivance seen in last year's "The X-Files: Fight the Future", another scene has Faraday witnessing a transient event that leads him to uncovering a terrorist plot. Finally, when the terrorist plot is finally revealed, it turns out to be an overly-elaborate scheme that relies on too many chance occurrences and complicated logistics to be executed successfully.

Terrorism is often described as a weapon of the poor, but many terrorists come from affluent backgrounds and are often supported by outside powers such as Algeria, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia, Syria, the United States, Yemen, etc. The so-called "riff-raft" theory is simply not accurate. Some terrorists do come from the lower-classes of society, but the majority are not the outlaw, dregs of society the media often portrays them to be.
The best thing about the movie... the ending

Performance-wise, Bridges does an effective job of handling Faraday's descent into paranoia, and watching his character's frantic efforts is a welcome diversion from the plot's inconsistencies and imaginative stretches. Even though I found it difficult to believe what was happening to him, Bridges was able to convince me that his character believed it wholeheartedly. Despite being given poorly-written characters to play, Robbins and Cusack manage to deliver sinister performances, played with gusto. Meanwhile, Davis, who gave a startling debut performance in "Next Stop, Wonderland", winds up relegated to playing the thankless role of skeptic girlfriend and sounding board to Bridges' paranoid tirades.

If there is one thing that ultimately redeems "Arlington Road", it would have to be the ending. Even though it ends up being derived from a series of illogical steps, the surprising and thought-provoking twist ending is by far the most memorable aspect of the film, and one can easily forgive the lazily written material that preceded it... as long as you don't think too hard afterward. What would have been truly outstanding is if Kruger had come up with a believable build-up worthy of such a terrific ending. As it is, the more you think about the film's plot, the less brilliant the ending becomes.

With its thought-provoking look at domestic terrorism and expectation-defying resolution, "Arlington Road" could have been a truly remarkable action-thriller. Unfortunately, with a story relying on a number of coincidences and logical leaps of faith, the film's interesting premise quickly loses its plausibility. As it is, "Arlington Road" is one of those popcorn movies that provides the requisite movie-going thrills-- as long as you don't try to look too deeply.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.


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