Not long ago, political columnists decried how public fascination with "The Runaway Bride" had driven Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame leak from the newspaper front pages and off the airwaves almost entirely. Why worry about public malfeasance when there's a juicy scandal to cover? And doesn't that capture the so-called "liberal" media's divergent attention to a war started under false pretenses versus oral sex in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, what we endure in today's news, we see reflected in contemporary entertainment. In the 1970s, we were also bogged down in an unpopular war with a president suffering from declining popularity amidst serious concerns about Constitutionally questionable actions.
And in that era Hollywood gave us The Parallax View, about a conspiracy to assassinate rising political leaders poised to challenge the establishment, and the incredibly prescient Three Days of the Condor, which involved a murderous CIA plot to launch an unprovoked war in the Middle East to protect American oil supplies.
What a difference a generation makes. Today we get Clark Johnson's The Sentinel, a film about a plot to assassinate the president that turns, yes, on an illicit sexual affair and exhibits not one meager whit of thematic sophistication or narrative skill.
Adapted by George Nolfi from Gerald Petievich's novel, The Sentinel, couldn't be klunkier if it went to a black-tie event in a Hawaiian shirt, plaid pants and yellow shoes. The first 20 minutes or so involve swooping, self-important shots of Secret Service agents buzzing about their daily tasks of checking out every room the president will eventually enter and studying crowds for potential weirdos. We get the point about 15 minutes before the filmmakers quit showing us how incredibly thoroughly the president is guarded.
The extremely threadbare plot involves treason within the president's security detail. Michael Douglas stars as Pete Garrison, a Secret Service lifer. Pete took a bullet for Ronald Reagan and served all the presidents since then, including current President John Ballentine (David Rasche) who, in a naked concession to the lowest common denominator, belongs to no party and stands for absolutely nothing. Pete is tipped off to the president's peril by a man who couldn't conceivably know that one of Pete's fellow sunglasses-wearing colleagues is going to murder the Commander-in-Chief for reasons so stupid that when they are revealed audiences actually grunt, "huh," in unison.
Suspicion quickly falls on Pete himself because he fails a lie detector test administered to all agents assigned to the presidential family. Pete flunks because he's trying to protect the dirty little fact that while on duty he's been making yum-yum with a beautiful blonde named Sarah (Kim Basinger) who, unfortunately, just happens to be the First Lady. Chief Secret Service investigator David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) couldn't be happier that Pete is his prime suspect. Dave and Pete used to be best friends until Dave decided that Pete was schtupping his own blond wife. Pete denies this vehemently, but since we know that Michael Douglas has made a fortune bedding blondes in movies from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct, we figure he's guilty whether he did it or not.
For a few fleeting moments in the first hour, the picture sustains the interesting possibility that Pete is actually guilty -- that, in order to be with his First Lady love, he's willing to off the husband who just happens to be the leader of the Free World. But mostly what we get is a lot running and hiding and shooting until everybody concerned obviously ran completely out of ideas about how to sustain the Pete-as-accusee angle. So forget that noise. Once David figures out Pete is doing the First Lady, David drops the idea Pete ever played nasty darts with David's wife. The logic of this conclusion is so lame, I'm powerfully glad David is a fictional character and not actually the Secret Service's lead investigator.
So now that Pete and David are bosoms again, they can get down to the important business of who really is plotting to kill the president for reasons so stupid we wish some of the film's endless gunplay would a fire a few shots into our brains and put us out of our misery. Some of this might have worked a little, I guess, if the illicit romance between First Lady and cheatin' bodyguard had any heat, and therefore desperation, but a AAA battery generates more electricity than Douglas and Basinger manage. In the end, this picture tries to substitute richocheting bullets for penetrating ideas.
And what I want to know is why a guy like Michael Douglas has even bothered with this flick. He can't need the money. And he's a guy who once produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The China Syndrome, not just good movies, but movies passionately about something. Why bother now with something this utterly pointless?
- I wish I could quit you! Secret Service investigator David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) and Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) work out their feelings in The Sentinel.