Murder at 1600 (1997)

D: Dwight H. Little
S: Wesley Snipes, Diane Lane, Alan Alda

Routine thriller featuring Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane running away a lot in between bouts of intense plotting and whodunit twists and turns. Not exactly All the President's Men, but more tolerable than The Pelican Brief and other more recent conspiracy thrillers thanks to generally swift pacing and plenty of star power.

A woman is murdered at the White House (shock! horror!), and D.C. homicide cop Snipes is brought in by National Security Advisor Alan Alda to investigate, against the wishes of White House Security Chief Daniel Benzali (from TV's Murder One). His investigations tie him up with Secret Service agent Lane and take him into the heart of a heinous conspiracy which may implicate the President (Ronny Cox) and the First Family in the dirty deed.

Despite the fact that this scenario is meant to inspire awe and terror that the heart of American democracy may well be under threat, it is difficult to take this film seriously from the moment it opens. The first scene has Snipes follow in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson by confronting a potential suicide and bringing him down 'his way'. From this generically predetermined moment on, nothing that happens in this film is unexpected (yes, the plot has plenty of twists and reversals, but I'm talking deep structure here). It happily resolves the nation's problems with a little direct action, and puts all those nasty right wingers where they belong...

Made at a time when the real-life U.S. President is facing legal action while in office and real ethical and political issues are in question, this fantasy murder-mystery provides obvious answers to obvious questions and makes everyone feel a whole lot better about American society despite the cover-ups, assassinations and fiendish plots which abound. As long as there are tough, no-nonsense cops to protect the system in spite of itself, we'll all sleep safer in our beds.

This is being a little high handed with what is essentially pulp entertainment, and Dwight H. Little's ambitions as director hardly extend this far. He delivers a standard easy-viewing movie with minimal disruption to either the brain cells or the emotions and relies heavily on the audience's willing suspension of involvement for it all to work. It moves swiftly, has plenty of action and keeps changing the prime suspect every fifteen minutes or so, making sure everyone is still awake.

Snipes sleep-walks through his role, and is given enough character quirks to sustain his interest as a performer (he builds Civil War models, his house is about to be torn down). He is backed up by a generally able cast of veterans in supporting roles (Alda is amusing in a performance which lampoons the character he's playing). Benzali is very good while he's around, and provides the only genuine jolt in the movie, when it comes, because his character is the most interesting and enigmatic of the bunch. Dennis Miller is also convincingly comradely as Snipes' partner. Lane, however, is something of a distraction, registering every emotion and plot twist with a series of facial twitches and squints which become intensely irritating after a while. Still, she has enough presence to hold the screen beside Snipes (lucky for her he's not trying very hard).

This is not a film to be taken seriously, and if you don't expect fireworks, you won't be disappointed. It trips along nicely and does what it has to to provide an hour and forty minutes of general entertainment. But it's a long, long way from being able to critically engage the issues it raises in spite of itself, and makes you wonder just how much further Hollywood can trivialise the office of the Presidency of the United States before it collapses entirely.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.