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Arlington Road (1999) March 24, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Some Hollywood films, while not good in depicting the world in which they were made, are good in presenting the mindset of their makers. One of those films is ARLINGTON ROAD, 1999 thriller directed by Mark Pellington.

Protagonist of the film is Michael Faraday (played by Jeff Bridges), history professor who lives in quiet Washington suburb with his young son Grant (played by Spencer Treat Clark). One day, while driving on the street, he sees young boy named Brady Lang (played by Mason Gamble) being injured and rushes him to hospital. There he finds that boy’s parents – structural engineer Oliver (played by Tim Robbins) and his wife Cheryl (played by Joan Cusack) – just happen to be his next door neighbours. Since they also happen to be nice and friendly people, he becomes a regular guest in their house, just as Grant becomes Brady’s best friend. But gradually Michael begins to spot certain details about Langs – the inconsistencies in their biographies, strange-looking blueprints and great interest in explosives. Michael, who teaches terrorism course at university and whose wife, an FBI agent, had been killed in botched raid on right-wing extremists, doesn’t take that lightly. As time goes by, he becomes convinced that Langs are pair of dangerous right-wing extremists who are about to blow up government buildings. However, when he expresses those fears to his girlfriend Brooke Wolfe (played by Hope Davis) and FBI, they all treat them as the product of paranoid mind.

In its time, ARLINGTON ROAD was hailed as one of the better thrillers to come from Hollywood. The main reason was in the script by Ehren Kruger. It used the formula of countless 1990s Hollywood thrillers – seemingly nice man who just turns out to be dangerous evildoer – and updated it to what many Americans saw as reality after the traumatic bombing of Oklahoma City federal building. In Kruger’s script dangerous psychopath was replaced by legions of right-wing extremists who hide in the mainstream of society and wait for the proper moment when they would unleash the mayhem on unsuspecting American democracy. This concept fitted perfectly with the dominant ideological mindset of 1990s Hollywood. For most of American filmmakers the real danger to the semi-utopian world of prosperous, progressive and all-powerful Clinton’s America came not from the outside, but from the inside. The real threat came Christian fundamentalism and all the political Right – forces that were, in Hollywood’s view at the time, on decline and tried to compensate the inevitable decrease of their influence with increased extremism. Those views were portrayed convincingly in ARLINGTON ROAD, at least to a point. It could be attributed to Pellington’s skilful direction and great acting by Robbins and Cusack. Kruger, to a certain point, maintains the level of suspense by allowing viewers to think that the grand terrorist conspiracy can be nothing more product of protagonist’s paranoia.

Unfortunately, in the last thirty minutes, ARLINGTON ROAD begins to fall apart. Once the answer to the viewers’ most important question has been given, all what is left for Kruger and Pellington is to bring the film to its conclusion. However, they try do it with unconventional “surprise” ending, which isn’t that surprising to those who happened to watch PARALLAX VIEW, 1970s film dealing with similar kind of subjects. And even those who haven’t watch that film are likely to realise that the final plot resolution was achieved at the expense of logic and credibility, thus undermining the very realism which was at the basis of the film.

And events that occurred few years showed how ARLINGTON ROAD, just like so many Hollywood thrillers, was far away from reality. One of greatest ironies of this film was in being discredited and validated by history at the same time. They showed that American security is much shakier than most people would like to believe and they also showed that the evil manifests itself in the forms that are both simpler and deadlier than anything Hollywood screenwriters’ imagination could produce.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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