Proof of Life

At one point in Proof of Life, directed by Taylor Hackford, Alice
Bowman (Meg Ryan) — who, by the way, is
the second movie heroine in a month to share my
name — asks Terry Thorne (Russell
Crowe), the hot-shot K & R (Kidnap and Ransom) specialist negotiating for
the release of her kidnapped husband, Peter (David Morse), if he believes things
happen for a reason. Naturally, she means bad things. Like being kidnapped by
South American guerrillas. On the whole, she is disposed to believe that they do
not. They just happen. But I couldn’t help
wondering if she thought this movie was happening for a
reason — I mean a reason apart from the
reason all movies happen, to make money. Did she, for instance, wonder what had
happened to the moral problem that the movie had raised and then buried beneath
a more or less routine Hollywood rescue caper? Was the caper itself enough of a
reason for her to be making this movie
and — just by the
way — wrecking her real-life marriage to
Dennis Quaid by a highly publicized on-set affair with Mr. Crowe?

The question is particularly piquant because the moral problem I mentioned
has precisely to do with infidelity. The gallant Thorne, who offers his services
to Mrs Bowman gratis after she has been denied help by her
husband’s employer, a wicked
multinational oil company (what do you expect?), finds himself falling in love
with her. And she, the distraught wife desperate to get her husband back,
nevertheless finds herself falling for him. You can see that this might be a
problem, particularly for Mr. Thorne whose conflict of interest becomes acute
when he has reason to believe that Peter Bowman is dead. Alice is disposed to
accept the report of hubby’s death,
but Thorne, being the sort of honorable paladin that he is, has to make
sure — and, even at the risk of his own
life, to do everything possible to rescue the man who has suddenly become his
rival in love. Not since Brief Encounter (1945) have the movies offered
us such a paean to what has since come pejoratively to be called the
of sexual desire.

Of course, one wants to stand up and cheer the very attempt. Could it we
wonder, presage a new and hopeful trend in Hollywood? Somehow I doubt it. Having
raised the subject of its stars’
virtuous continence, the movie seemingly can do nothing with it but show them
being continent for a moment and then turn to other things. Moreover, the fact
that the fiction has been so overshadowed by the real-life shenanigans of its
stars should bring us back to earth with a bump. Miss Ryan, of course, had not
even the excuse for getting out of her
panties — or was it the fetching
sleepwear in which she several times appears
here? — for Mr Crowe that her character
did. Poor Mr. Quaid was not kidnapped and presumed dead — though perhaps she
would argue that, like Alice Bowman, she was frightened and alone in a strange
land (England) and grateful for the protection of a hunky guy. But for those of
us looking on, it was almost as if she had to demonstrate in the most forceful
way she could that the fiction which her day job involved her in creating for us
was only that. In real life, or at least life as real as it gets in Hollywood,
people just don’t deny their sexual
impulses like that.

From one point of view, this was a form of self-sabotage. But you could also
see it as a kind of post-modern commentary on the film, as if Mr Hackford had
had written into the script an off-camera affair for his stars in order to make
the same point that directors like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas make by
their careful crafting of tongue-in-cheek artificialities. That is to say, they
need to tell us in this way that we are not to insult them by supposing that
they suppose that any of this stuff is real. They know
it’s just a movie, and they want us to
know they know it. That way, both director and audience can become a sort of
co-conspirators against
reality — children whose delight in
their fiction is precisely that it offers not an imitation of but an insulation
against adult realities. What I don’t
understand about Proof of Life is why they pretended to be interested in
an adult moral question in the first place if they were going to do so little
with it. Maybe the money-men stepped in and said:
“There are not enough machine guns and
shoulder-mounted rockets and grimy-looking peasant banditos doing
bullet-assisted back-flips in this movie. Get some
in.” Naturally, something had to make
room for them.

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