Monday, November 02, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Snake Eyes (1998)

After reviewing two very "heavy" Brian De Palma classics in recent weeks, Scarface (1983) and Redacted (2007), it's a bit of a relief to gaze back at this piece today: a sinuous, mind-blowing action-thriller from the decade of big action films: Snake Eyes (1998).

Of course, because this is De Palma's oeuvre we're discussing, Snake Eyes isn't mere mindless, breezy action. On the contrary, this intricate thriller is virtually brimming with just the kind of sizzling, trenchant imagery and social commentary De Palma has long conditioned his audiences to expect.

Specifically, Snake Eyes is the story of a "slick," morally questionable and charismatic protagonist, Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro (Nic Cage). He's on the take, and exhibits personal/political aspirations to become mayor of New Jersey's "sin city".

While on the job (and hustling...) at a soon-to-be-scuttled boxing colosseum, Rick must unexpectedly contend with a high-profile homicide (the murder of a government official...) during a televised prize fight. Suddenly, Rick finds himself thrust into the spotlight: first championed as a hero of the people and then quickly derided and spit out by the Millennium-era Media's ubiquitous "spin." Ultimately (as the movie ends...), he goes to jail...

One day a hero, the next day a louse? Now ask yourself -- thinking in terms of the 1990s -- what famous figure does that sound like?

The Rules of Spin: Santoro, The Media and The Truth

Give yourself three points if you thought immediately of our 42nd President, William Jefferson Clinton.

In 1998, Bill Clinton had recently won re-election to the White House, but was dealing not only with an ascendant Republican Party in Congress, but the "new" 24-hours-a-day cable TV news cycle that introduced Fox News, Laura Ingraham, Anne Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and other prominent right-wing commentators eager to take him down.

But even given this dedicated cabal of Clinton-haters, the President was arguably his own worst enemy at times. By 1998, Clinton was mired down in questionable money-raising schemes from the presidential bid; specifically the raising of soft money and the "selling" of the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder (a practice continued by his successor, George W. Bush, incidentally). Even if Clinton hadn't broken any laws in his quest to retain the Presidency, he certainly skirted them, and the questionable fundraising policies of Clinton came back to injure Al Gore politically (think: Buddhist Temples and "no controlling legal authority").

But more importantly, by 1996 the average American was witnessing the protean stage of a corporate news media that had abdicated a responsibility to the truth. Instead of reporting facts, news programs now featured a representative from each political "side" arguing talking points and promoting partisan spin. Spin, of course, is the cherry-picking of data, the manipulation of facts and the pushing of, essentially, propaganda. The Clinton-Dole election was one of the first salvos in the new"spin"/"sound-byte" sweepstakes. Or as I call it, short attention span political theater.

All of this context finds unexpected voice in in 1998's Snake Eyes. In this labyrinthine film, the truth is difficult to discern, and spin is everything. For example, in the film's first shot, a news-reporter (on-camera) is actually asked to "spin" an approaching hurricane(!) so an not to jeopardize the audience for the prize fight. The word has come down from HQ that it isn't a hurricane at all (despite the physical evidence)'s...a tropical storm.

Then, after the assassination of Secretary of Defense, Rick's best friend, Navy man Kevin Dunne (who was in charge of security at the event...) worries that he will be blamed for the Secretary's death. Why? He was "out of position" during the assassination. Santoro, however, attempts to spin the event so that Dunne (Gary Sinise) comes out a hero.

"It isn't lying," according to the Santoro Manifesto: "You just tell them what you did right and leave out the rest," he tells Dunne. This parsing of the truth very much fits in with Clinton's grand jury testimony of the year 1999 (in the Monica Lewinsky affair...) wherein the President suggested his answers were meant to be "truthful, but not particularly helpful."

Santoro is a man who plays all the angles -- to his benefit -- but who, during the course of Snake Eyes undergoes an interesting journey. He ultimately comes to point of clarity about who he is, and what he stands for. Ironically, it becomes the task of a champion spinner to discern...the unfiltered truth. He emerges from the film bloodied and bruised and loved by few (again, not unlike Clinton), but at least he knows where he stands.

Here Comes the Pain: The Zero Gravity Flying Eye Sees All

So, in a world of pervasive spin, how do you discern the unfiltered truth? Simple answer: go to the video tape.

In Snake Eyes, De Palma orchestrates a non-stop Roshomon-esque onslaught of opposing point-of-views and flashbacks. It's so much information (and mis-information), in fact, it becomes dizzying. Some audiences and some critics weren't able to keep up with the director and his narrative.

To wit: we get Kevin Dunne's "patriotic" story of the murder (a fabric of lies). We get the perspective of a dedicated government informant and whistle-blower named Julia, played by Carla Gugino, and even the tale of the assassination as re-counted by a prize fighter, Lincoln Tyler, who threw the fight to settle his gambling debts (and unwittingly served a darker agenda in the process).

Each one of these characters, even the noble whistle-blower is vested in their perspective (proving, in classic De Palma fashion, the essential unreliability of human memory), and therefore unreliable. On several occasions, Santoro must resort to an impartial third person observer to ferret out the truth: a video camera; or rather LIVE video camera footage that captured the murderous, tricky events as they occurred.

In the first circumstance, an instant replay of footage during the boxing match reveals that Tyler threw the fight to his opponent, Ruiz. We see with our own eyes (from a high angle) as Ruiz's knock-out punch fails to connect....just seconds before the Secretary of Defense is murdered. This clue, this piece of "unspun" truth leads Santoro to a deeper revelation: someone wanted Tyler to throw the fight at a certain moment, and there were at least five people involved (and, as Santoro aptly recognizes, "five people makes a conspiracy").

Later, Santoro again utilizes live, real-time video footage to track down the missing, frightened informant (who was also targeted for assassination...), going from floor-to-floor of the colosseum/casino complex; searching for her while a friend keeps an eye on the surveillance cameras. This tracking-by-camera permits Santoro to save the informant from the conspiracy, and add sher knowledge/perspective to his own.

And finally -- and most importantly -- Santoro discovers the "Zero Gravity Flying Eye," a "new" camera that was not known to the members of the conspiracy when the scheme was hatched. This gadget captures the real culprit on tape, and exposes him to Santoro. Again, raw, un-manipulated videotape (or footage) holds the key to resolving the crime. Importantly, the film's villain also lives and dies by the sword of the "public" eye/camera. After presiding over a press conference packed with lies and manipulation, Dunne is eventually exposed by live news footage, in the process of trying to kill Santoro. It's an act you can't spin.

The camera is clearly a double-edged sword in Snake Eyes. If people know they are on camera; they are spinners, Snake Eyes seems to assert. If not, the camera can, perhaps, "capture" the truth. Underneath all these video images (lies and truth), De Palma does something else tricky: he girds Snake Eyes with iconic symbols of America; or of America gone wrong. These representations niclude a giant American flag in the colosseum (shades of Blow Out [1981]). Old Glory presides over the assassination of a patriot without protest or stain. Later, a patriotic "Millennium Globe" rolls off its perch, indicating also that something is off-kilter here. And most importantly, we keep seeing (over and over...) a dollar bill stained with blood...literally blood-money. Here, the American dollar is the thing that leads our characters astray...and away from morality.

Snake Eyes, a film noir set against the backdrop of incessant rain, is another De Palma venture in which form strongly reflects content. As described above, the truth is difficult to discern, and motivations are difficult, even impossible, to read. Accordingly De Palma provides us split screens at crucial moments in the narrative, fracturing the "truth" with double perspectives (much like the right/left dividing screens we see displayed on programs like Hardball or Hannity).

Furthermore, De Palma charts Santoro's morally ambiguous position in this dizzying world of spin with winding, careening, darting, long-shots (particularly the famous, eight minute shot which opens the film). We watch Santoro navigate a location that is, visually, a maze, and that locale is a perfect reflection of his situation and of American politics in the 1990s (and even today). There's no way out; the maze is a trap for everyone in it. The film ultimately asks a very relevant and difficult moral question too. Who is worse? The sleazy guy on the take in matters of money, or the outwardly "respectable" patriotic man who lies about matters of life and death and murders innocent people to benefit from war profiteering?

Snake Eyes underwent a tumultuous editing process in the lead up to release. In particular, a scene involving a tidal wave striking the casino (and nearly drowning Santoro) was entirely deleted from the final cut, a fact which makes the movie's final act seem a little anti-climactic to some. But this shake-up hardly matters because Snake Eyes, especially in that first act, remains an example of exhilirating filmmaking. Critic Nathan Rubin wrote: "The first hour or so of Snake Eyes...are as good as anything De Palma has done. That hour exhibits a joy in the possibilities of film not seen since Paul Thomas Anderson's similarly masterful Boogie Nights."

Writing for The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted, with some insight, that Snake Eyes, "becomes a hyperventilating inquiry into the limits of friendship and loyalty and what constitutes character."

What constitutes character? In so many ways, that fascinating question is the real story of the Clinton Era and the American 1990s (as well as Bush's time in office afterwards; the Republican "answer" to that query).

And as usual, De Palma was ahead of his time in asking it.


  1. I never knew about the tidal wave striking the casino sequence! Yeah, the first hour of this De Palma film was one of my favorites. Rick was one smooth operator in this film, and the Bill Clinton parallel is quite apt. Morally ambiguous vs. the truly corrupt (the subsequent administration) certainly makes the director ahead of his time, once again. Great look back, JKM. Thanks for this.

  2. Le0pard13:

    Thanks for the comment. I was shocked too, when I learned about a huge CGI sequence created by ILM that was removed from the film. Apparently, it was just a case of "too much" what with all the twist and turns. In retrospect, I wonder if the tidal wave would have given the film the "lift" that many viewers felt it needed...


  3. I haven't seen this film in ages and really need to revisit in lieu of this excellent post. I do remember being dazzled by the opening scene and it was my first intro to the always lovely Carla Gugino...

  4. At the time the film came out I couldn't hear its title without thinking of spin-meister James Carville. Snake eyes indeed.