Friday, June 16, 2017

The Osterman Weekend

An adaptation of an espionage novel by Robert Ludlum, the author of The Bourne Identity, The Osterman Weekend (1983) seems a strange choice for director Sam Peckinpah, best known for his rugged, violent westerns. The film proved to be the last of Peckinpah, who died a year later, and critics tore it shreds, calling it a confusing mess.

Contrarily, I kind of liked it. To a point. It's what I'd call an interesting failure. I wouldn't rank it among Peckinpah's best, but its themes resonate and fit with the rest of his work, so I can see why the story might have appealed to him. Fans will recognize some his favorite topics, including loyalty, male identity, and the individual caught in a turbulent world he no longer recognizes.

John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), a TV journalist known for his confrontational interviews, is approached by CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) and top field agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt). They present Tanner with evidence showing his three college friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) are part of a Soviet spy ring and a grave threat to the United States.

Danforth and Fassett know the four friends meet up every year for a weekend, and they want to stake out Tanner's house during the get-together to try to convert one of them away from the Soviets. Complicating the matter is the presence of Tanner's wife (Meg Foster) and young son as well as the wives of two of the friends (Helen Shaver and Cassie Yates).

In a way, The Osterman Weekend is a play on Straw Dogs. Instead of fighting to protect the sanctity of his home from outsiders, Tanner himself agrees, albeit reluctantly, to have that sanctity violated by two different forces: the shadowy CIA and the men he thought were his friends. These are people he should be able to trust for protection.

The movie is at its most intriguing in the first half as Tanner tries to keep up the appearance of normalcy in the face of earth-shattering revelations. Can he really trust the CIA? Do his friends think he knows something? Will he confide in his wife? The character interaction here is laced with irony, paranoia, suspicion, and uncertainty, and at some point, the situation is going to explode.

Meanwhile, Fassett, the point man on the operation, watches, from a secluded location, everything that is going on through a system of video cameras and listens in to all conversations. He's the most interesting character; his wife is assassinated in the opening scene, and it was his hunt for the killers that uncovered the spy ring, although Danforth tells another agent the CIA let the killing occur. Fassett is a peculiar character, not only observing but manipulating the others unseen, and he relishes that level of power and control. When Tanner asks who's pulling his strings, Fassett mocks him by pretending to be a marionette.

The movie started to lose me in the second half when the truth comes out and the plot descends into the expected Peckinpah violence, i.e. slow motion of action of people being horribly shot, stabbed, and blown up, and the film becomes much more on the nose with its Straw Dogs comparisons. It devolves into a lot of running around, screaming, and threats, and in the process, the character and plot end up buried.

Characters reveal new motivations, raising all sorts of unanswered questions that muddy the narrative and confuse me. Some of the actions taken by the characters appear really baffling. Looking back on the film, I think I can piece everything together, but in the moment, I got lost, and some of the potential dramatic impact was muted as a result.

Maybe Peckinpah wasn't the right director for this material. Maybe someone a little more sleeker, a little more refined, could have balanced all the plot threads better. Still, I'm glad he got to make it. In a way, a lesser Peckinpah movie is more interesting than a good movie by another director.

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