Monday, 7 May 2007

Analysis: 'Civic Duty' -- a post 9/11 film

By SHAUN WATERMAN

WASHINGTON, May 7 (UPI) -- Mostly when we talk about a political film, we mean one with a didactic point of view: in its purest form, a simple lecture, like Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

But cinema can be political in another way. It can be a mirror to a nation's flawed soul. Like "The Deer Hunter," like "The Conformist."

"Civic Duty" is such a movie. An ambiguous tale of one man's post-Sept. 11, 2001, descent into a kind of hell -- but is it a paranoid trap of his own delusion, or is he really the only person who can stop the next big terror attack?

At the center of the film is the complex figure of Terry Allen, portrayed with humanity and depth by Peter Krause. Having lost his job just after the terror attacks, Terry begins to harbor suspicions about his new neighbor, a "Middle Eastern guy" (the confident U.S. debut of Egyptian matinee idol Khaled Abol Naga) who takes his garbage out in the middle of the night and keeps a makeshift lab in his kitchen.

Fueled by the endless fear-mongering of the continuous news networks ("The media is essentially the devil on Terry's shoulder," says screenwriter Andrew Joiner), his growing obsession starts to alienate Terry from his wife (a luminous Kari Matchett) and draws him into escalating, angry confrontations with Richard Schiff's beautifully underplayed FBI Agent Hilary.

This part of the film, despite almost frenetic camera-work and editing, drags slightly. But it also drags you in -- largely thanks to Krause's absorbing and sympathetic portrayal.

Terry's eventual breakdown and the convulsive climax it precipitates -- as ugly and inevitable as the death it portrays -- is deftly handled by director Jeff Renfroe, as the pace of events finally catches up with the speed of the editing and cinematography.

The tragic resolution is followed by a clever twist: the kind of cinematic sleight-of-hand that leaves one wondering, even after several viewings, exactly what the filmmakers intended.

That ambiguity is deliberate, according to Krause.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, the actor explained that in the original script, the ending had vindicated Terry's paranoia.

"Terry is crazy, I think, by the end of the film. ... The original idea ... was to shock the audience, turn them around," by revealing his delusions as truth.

But by leaving the question open, Krause says, the film's makers are trying to make a point.

"As responsible artists, it's more important to ask a question: Why are we allowing ourselves to continue to live in fear?"

It is a subject he waxes lyrical on: How can we live in this new world where it is rational, up to a point, to wonder whether our neighbor might be plotting to kill us all?

"We all felt frightened here in the (United) States after Sept. 11, and with good reason," he said, adding that the news media had at first "fairly reflected that fear but then started to magnify or amplify it back to us."

At some point, he said, the news media "crossed the line" and became an echo chamber for national paranoia.

"It's not a good thing psychologically (or) emotionally," he said of that state of mind. "But it is the world that we live in. We can't discount the fact that terrorists have continued to try and attack us."

But it is the psychic cost of that new world that the film explores.

Krause says the national psyche has rebounded, to some degree. "You can't exist in a heightened state of fear indefinitely," he said. But the fear can and does easily return.

"Something like the shootings at Virginia Tech happens and the button gets pushed again," he observed, adding that in the wake of that massacre, the same questions were being asked: "Are we paranoid enough? ... Are we aware enough? Are we concerned enough about what's happening next door?"

"When people watch the film, they look at themselves in the mirror," says producer Andrew Lanter. "They have to ask: Who was I during that time (after Sept. 11)? Were my fears rational or irrational?"

Terry is the guy who finds out where that line is by stepping over it -- the only way, as Hunter S. Thompson once observed, that anyone can find out where any line is.

To Krause, it was important that Terry be a basically apolitical everyman. "He is really meant to symbolize the silent majority."

Because the character can't be pigeonholed, he explained, the story lets no one off the hook. "Conservatives couldn't dismiss it as a caricature. ... Liberals can't say 'That's not me.'"

Krause says Terry, like many Americans, feels disempowered.

"I am not my country. ... I don't get to vote on foreign policy," the character cries at one moment -- but Krause said that's not a claim Americans can make: they have a duty to "demand that their government represent them."

"Complacency is a disease in this country," he said. "You can't have government of the people, by the people and for the people if the people don't get involved."

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