Country Don’t Mean Dumb, Ebert

I haven’t seen Firewall and have no intention to. This is not because I am a film snob (I am) or that I am averse to seeing a popcorn thriller (with enough friends, drinks and/or heavy petting, yes). It’s simply because I saw Firewall the last time it came around — when it was called Air Force One.

However, I must question Roger Ebert’s review, which offers a remarkably unsophisticated argument that is both anti-cultural and anti-intellectual.

Ebert writes:

But there is a larger question: Need a thriller be plausible in order to be entertaining? One of the most common routines in the filmcrit biz, one I have myself performed many times, involves demolishing the credibility of a plot as if you have therefore demolished the movie. I think there’s a sliding scale involved: If the movie is manifestly impossible while you’re watching it, then that can be fatal (unless, of course, it is a movie intended to be manifestly impossible, like a James Bond thriller). If however, the movie holds water or at least doesn’t leak too quickly, I’m not very concerned about whether you can tear it to pieces after you leave the theater.

There is no larger question here. A lousy thriller might be entertaining in a base or déclassé sense if one cannot buy the character motivations, much less the reality of the world portrayed. But should we prop up such a lead balloon as high art? Should a thriller motivated by cardboard characters, formulaic conventions, derivative banter and baseless logic be given a three-star review? If one has any love for culture at all, I should say not.

Ebert has, throughout his career, positioned himself as a populist critic. Had it not been for Ebert, countless smaller films, made with thought, care and a concern for the real, might never have seen the light of day, much less garnered attention on the film festival criticuits.

But if Ebert’s purpose is to educate or inform the public about film through the clear and thoughtful voice one finds in his reviews, his Overlooked Film Festival and his handy Little Movie Glossary, then it seems to me that the critical standards he champions should apply across the board. Rewarding Hollywood for insulting its audience with yet another overhyped and jejune thriller is both a disservice to Ebert’s work as a critic and a disservice to Ebert’s readers.

Granted, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, camp can be appreciated under certain conditions. But I suspect Firewall is not that form of camp. A film without nuance or even a half-assed wisdom can’t really be qualified. The fact is that there’s no real distinction or playfulness in seeing Harrison Ford barking “I want my family back!” for the umpteenth time. It is an image as rote and repeated as an exploding car. It is worse than a trope. It is a redundancy. (By comparison, take a bottom-of-the-barrel film like Cabin Fever. It is dumb yet enjoyable camp. You have to give writer-director Eli Roth some points in Cabin Fever for sending up the silly “Let’s party!” feel of 1980s slasher movies with the backwoods deputy character or playing off of discomfort with the infamous leg shaving scene. The point is, like Cabin Fever or not, there is a clear effort on Roth’s part to attempt something distinct.)

To dignify or to give credence to a film such as Firewall or Flight Plan (a terrible movie with Jodie Foster, which I have seen) simply because it has a Major Star is to handicap a failed serious attempt without any cultural qualifier. It does not follow that the cinematic presence of Foster or Ford alone contributes exclusively to artistic quality, and yet even Ebert gives it a fair pass as he points out that Ford “needs to be in better condition than a 20-year-old triathlon champion” during Firewall‘s final scenes. This remarkable critical position rewards bonehead filmmakers who string together absurd plot holes and have the arrogance to expect audiences to be thrilled when it is clearly impossible to believe.

Ebert should know better. And so should his readers.

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