That’s why I sing for an America that will never be back but that left us with such vivifying memories. You’re not lost, not past, not buried. You’re active, vital, real, brilliant, beautiful, crazy, still alive, in me.
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I’m not who you think I am. At this point, I’m not even sure who I am, anymore. I’ve lived so many lives, seen so many faces in the mirror, it’s hard to sort them out from the idealist who came to this world with set objectives and certainty of heart.
Since my youth I’ve received signals from an other world. It’s the one advantage of having not too firm a sense of your own self. Sometimes these messages come in strange maxims that present themselves at the moment of waking – communiqués tagged onto a narrative forgotten or rushed to conclusion before consciousness hits – a summation of what I stood to lose before then, a riddle seducing me to further inquiry. Like the one that dawned this morning, Telling lies where there are two truths. I don’t know what came before it; I’ve lost the context. It’s like I’d woken with an inexplicable second impression on my pillow. I thought I knew who I was. All because of Susan.
You know the deal: you’re adrift and someone enters your waters and reorients you and your worldview, moves you out of your old habit of mind till it feels you’re of one mind; then something goes wrong and the next thing you know you’re back on dry land unable to lose your sea legs. Thrown out of yourself, you search for who else to be, but who could possibly be better than the two of you were? So you find a silhouette – a profile – a half-developed photograph, and you can just about see yourself in there. Your instincts tell you to go with it, flow with it, dialog with it, and tease out whatever connection you sense, then try to learn what it says about you. Because at some point strangers may know you better than you do.
That’s how I came to identify with this character in this movie, No Way Out, who looked like someone I used to be, acted like someone I used to be, but wasn’t me. Still I knew he could help me find that person (I hesitate to add “again” when there’s no again anymore), maybe because at the beginning of that picture he’s trying to find himself. He’s uneased in a roomful of men, so maybe he’s not even a man, and it’s not clear what they want from him. First we see him is on closed-circuit TV – fuzzied, mediated, internalized – the irony being that he’s not closed off at all. Part of the reason he’s frustrated is they’ve put him in a box he thought he’d already busted out of, thanks to someone he doesn’t refer to till the end, someone who was only supposed to be a conduit to the real object of his engagement.
As we meet him, he’s giving a deposition before a two-way mirror (think about that: a two-way mirror – as if he were possessed of two selves, one present and clear to him, the other absent and obscure; or if his image had something to communicate to him, and vice versa, or could go more than one way, mean more than one thing). It’s confessional. The scene ends with him asking “When’s he gonna come out from behind” the mirror, so he doesn’t know himself, and we expect the film will be an inquiry into that identity. Given the psychological resonances, when we backtrack to SIX MONTHS EARLIER it’s like a withdrawal into somebody’s mindspace in order to answer his question.
We naturally assume such flashbacks to be remembered history, but that’s an act of faith: you could as easily read them as a fantasia triggered by the preceding incident. At the same time, their chronological situation means they’re an extension of what came before, a consequence, not a digression: It follows. As psychological event, this could mean one of two things: The opening material is either a reverie we look to history to flesh out or explain (the hero, Tom Farrell, wound up in that room because he met, loved, and lost Susan), or the predisposing material for the dream to follow (he invented their affair as an escape from these guys). Both work equally well.
There’s a master shot, setting up the prolog, we need to talk about before we can get to the rest. It’s a simple establishing shot, one long aerial take going from the Washington Monument and Capitol across the Potomac to the suburban house where the opening scene took place. An omniscient viewpoint like that in what we’ll find is a deeply divided piece of real estate – literally, with that river running through it – tells you the film sees above divisions, makes connections its inhabitants can’t, and more than anything is interested; by its very motion, it makes everything cohere. We get the symbolism of the Manument – the Manhoodment – but are we sure we understand the Capitol Building? If that obelisk is Phallos, can the dome be Mommy? The breast that sustains and the baby bump that gestates, nurtures, and births? Maybe it’s a brain, on top of everything: it is the nerve-center of the nation. What follows (and by follows I mean precedes, as we trip back in time) can be boiled down to a series of cab rides, phone calls, meetings, and other interactions – exchanges; an economy of presences – the workings of that mind on a physical, mechanical, as well as imaginative level, with its transferences, connections, communications and miscommunications, and engagements between levels of consciousness in constant flux, epiphany, repetition, vacillation, rumination, conflict, challenge, confrontation, blurring, bafflement, and revelation, every character in it a function of the mental process. The politics of cognition.
If this Capitol is a brain, the first thing it spits out – of a taxi – at night – is Tom, in Navy regalia. He’s a piece of psychic flotsam borne on the seas and thrown up on our shores to provide a way in for us, the audience. It’s no accident he should arrive at an Inaugural ball: he’s entirely new to our thinking. As spectators as suddenly finding ourselves in an unfamiliar milieu as he, we want to identify with him in order to grasp a foothold in this giddy terrain; nobody likes to feel alien. He’s our mirror, and whether we admit it or not, we’ve come to this dream to find out who that is behind the reflection, too; with what, exactly, are we associating, and why? The film’s answer is a kick in the gut to patriotic Oneiricans all, so should be spoilered upfront: He’s a Soviet mole, planted here in his (our) youth in order to realize the oedipal coup he actually gets away with, with our complicity (because we all want a way out). Of course, it’s preposterous that an agent under Russian influence could ever pass unnoticed in the Capitol, so what could it mean that we’re in this situation in the first place? Who are we, really, that our own identity could come as such a surprise?
Questions – right? The movie asks so many of itself, a lot of which we won’t even realize till second viewing. Part of this is due to its being helmed by a New Zealander, Roger Donaldson, riding in on a wave of Australasian directors of the time (No Way Out debuted in 1987) that also brought Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, and Gillian Armstrong (not to mention Mel Gibson). He’s the sailor-alien, trying to suss out a country whose seductions were immediate and intense but whose complications ran deep and to the dangerous. More than a nation, there’s a time and a gender under scrutiny too, serving up Kevin Costner at his hotdoggiest in what was America’s cockiest decade, having nurtured Tom Cruise, Anthony Michael Hall, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger – do I even need to go on? – and all their wiseass retorts. The movie plays on our willingness to identify with a guy like Tom and the received notions of laddish swagger he brings with him, only to question that association in its surprise ending, so we both end up flummoxed. It foreshadows the Millennial Ninth Gate Roman Polanski character’s closing discovery that he’s Satan, and is all right with that.
Robert Garland’s script (originally titled Finished with Engines, a nautical term indicating arrival at port) was an ingenious transposition of its credited source, Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock, and especially Jonathan Latimer’s 1948 film adaptation, whose flashback structure, hit squad, cleanup operation, and “war contractor” political straw man were original additions to the text. Set in the self-reflexive publishing world of the contemporary 1940s, the novel was, as Nicholas Christopher described it in his intro to the 2006 edition, “a quietly subversive take on capitalism and the American corporation,” as No Way Out is on government and male priority. Fearing himself was an interesting study. An avowed leftist with as diverse a CV as he gives his protagonist, George Stroud, he co-founded the Partisan Review, published volumes of poetry, and contributed journalism to The New Yorker in addition to turning out softcore porn and toiling by day in public relations; he was also, in Christopher’s words, “a serious alcoholic” who drank himself out of a series of jobs and marriages before an early death due to these excesses.
As if to certify a unity of mind in his drama, Fearing gives George a wife named Georgette and a daughter named Georgia (throwing in a mythical fourth George, Chester; he also makes early mention of waking with text from a dream in his head), and describes Janoth (a possible pun on Janus, the two-faced god) Publishing’s network of periodicals as “an empire of intelligence” not unlike the web of apparatuses in Garland’s Capitol. In essential pulp terms, he frames his title matrix-theory as not so much wound-up noirish Fate, which his hero eludes, as the steady churn of cause and effect; his investigative-journalist team’s search for “the one man who really knows the entire setup” is an ontological quest to identify who or what killed the vivacious force here named Pauline Delos. From his description of Big Clock’s “mole,” Chester, as “a pronounced drunk,” it’s likely Fearing was using his fiction to psych out his own self-destructive mystique – and imaginatively sidestep its consequences in his deus ex homo conclusion.
Garland conjures his hero, Tom, a Naval Intelligence officer, through the auspices of a college acquaintance, Scott Pritchard, who invites him to the gala. Scott is now General Counsel to Defense Secretary David Brice, and is eyeing him to join their team. Instead, Tom takes off with Susan Atwell, a live wire in a ballroom full of stuffed shirts who jumps into a taxi with him minutes after meeting, the way you do, for a less-than-private wingding, then throws her South African best-and-apparently-only friend Nina Beka out of Nina’s apartment for round two. After another hedonistic weekend, Susan is accidentally killed by her jealous sugar daddy Brice, so fixer Pritchard, who harbors a crush on his boss, devises a diversion blaming the death on a fictitious Russian spy, who turns out to be real-life Tom. This leads to quarantining the entire Pentagon as they ferret out “Yuri” at the same time Yuri works to expose Brice as the murderer. Add in an unexplained second old pal, wheelchaired systems analyst Sam Hesselman; a couple of goons left over from Reagan’s South American death squads; an incriminating Polaroid prematurely exposed; Brice’s gift of a jewel box from a Middle Eastern foreign minister; and late-80s computer technology, and stir into a multiplex hit.
Character motivations are murky and deep. Tom is supposedly using Susan to get to Brice, as he implies to his handler, Schiller, in the end, but this doesn’t square with what we see: he’s already in Brice’s orbit thanks to Scott, and nothing he does with Susan separately accomplishes anything other than get her killed. So why the prevarication? What is Tom keeping from his superior? Garland’s script adds a homoerotic edge to the college buds (“Wanna dance?” Tom joshes Scott at the ball), so Tom may have been playing the closeted Scott all along but got distracted by this libidinous firecracker, like an espionage “Suffragette City.” When in the end he insists, “I did what I was told with that woman,” it sounds like whatever that was was counter to his preferences, Schiller’s fondling of his shirt a show of tenderness like the one Scott shows Brice at the climax. (The cloistered men in these bookends play like Old Hollywood’s vision of homosexual society, shadowy and rife with insidious portent.) In any case, it’s Brice himself who finally brings Tom into the fold, based on a newspaper account of his bravery at sea that plays like a telegram from the secretary’s unconscious to his conscious mind, alerting him to undercurrents he’s only vaguely aware of.
Tom’s nautical adventure has the force of psychodrama, taking place at night, far from land, with crashing waves and little light, our hero waking to appear topside on his submarine at a crucial juncture. (The fact that they’re tracking another, Soviet sub reflects back on the Russian-mole subterfuge, multiplying the ironies.) As this comes immediately after Tom’s whirlwind romance, the implication is that that experience was so convulsive it’s thrown his mind into tumult; when he saves a fellow sailor from the tempest, it’s a part of himself he’s rescuing, as Susan did him. Brice engages him to gain intel on his bête noire, Senator Billy Duvall and his stealth-submarine boondoggle, but soon redirects him to pursuit of the mole, making the inquiry-into-the-self subtext text. The analogy between missions hammers home the running theme of male sexual paranoia, with younger, sexier Tom the subliminal vessel invading Brice’s mistress’s waters. Brice’s encounter with silhouetted Tom outside Susan’s place before her killing carries its own psychic weight, the intersection of her two lovers uniting each in their desire to know.
So who is Susan Atwell? She’s Mae West, Daisy Miller, Daisy Buchanan, Evelyn Mulwray, Marilyn Monroe, and gloriously, perfectly herself. She’s everything America to a non-American, to the extent that “USA” are the middle letters of her name. Which means she’s impulsive, accessible, skeptical (but eternally optimistic), untamable (though kept), both brash and repressed, exploited and exploitative, no baby (but with an unquashable youthful vitality), wildly creative and antic of mind – and so very, very beautiful. That her chemistry with Tom is immediate means there’s something that wants to come together in that atmosphere already – a longing, a loneliness, a sense of incompleteness, a division between the establishment DC had come to be and the electricity that fired it at its inception – something that demands immediate, abandoned intercourse and leaves Tom’s world forever altered and himself a stranger to the man he thought himself to be. The antithesis of everything he came here for, she turns his head around so completely in the space of a few days he’s willing to put himself in jeopardy to defend her name and bring her attacker to justice, the result being that he finds himself stateless and on the run in a country he now knows the best and worst about and with loyalties that no longer sit becalmed.
By the time of No Way Out’s release, Tom’s home country was already on the ropes; it would be only a couple more years before Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s implementation of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, reform, would attend its collapse as symbolized by the demolition of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, Ronald Reagan’s America was in the process of retreating from its own era of social and cultural revolution in the 1960s and ’70s toward a more repressive mien based on a false narrative of ’50s pastorality still yearned for by MAGA fantasists with a fetish for Soviet-bloc authoritarianism. The absence of a guest of honor at this film’s Inaugural points up the vacancy of moral leadership in the government at large, and suggests this all as a dream of the absented ego (keeping in mind there are two presidents in play).
Any American studio film taking place in Washington is automatically an allegory on Hollywood and its own hierarchy of frightened, backbiting, avaricious, and territorial weasels, where Donaldson was as much an outsider as Farrell is. So when Tom acts out his role attending lavish parties or going to a strip bar for hedonistic, macho cover, his distaste for such institutions may mirror the director’s. Considering behaviors like these were par for the Bad Boy course in the Lib-backlash ’80s, not knowing Farrell’s context for participating in them puts the audience in the position of being covertly criticized for its affinities – a coup for a director whose harder-hitting native drama Smash Palace and nuanced The Bounty showed him an established critic of men and their difficulties around control. What does it mean, then, that the cost of Farrell’s heroic quest is this hothouse flower objectified and used for both his and Brice’s gains?
In my line I do a lot of research. I need to know how subjects act, how they’ll react; what motivates them; what desires. So I read a lot in literature and politics – psychology. I’m particularly interested in dreams, the physical and the metaphysical, those things we contain but keep hidden away but that keep seeping out through other channels. Did you know the sleeping brain discharges muscle inhibitors to keep us from acting out our dreams, which is one reason so many of them concern frustration? Some people do this in life, too, while others feel no compunction about acting on their instincts and impulses, then expend endless time and energy papering over their transgressions. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Look at Brice – smart guy, a bit unknowable, obviously unfulfilled, having to deal with bow-tied showboaters the likes of Duvall, starchy-do’d Washington wife in tow; no wonder he keeps a mistress like Susan. No wonder, too, he wants her there at public functions just to look at from a distance: she’s the reason he’s doing this at all, “the only other thing,” he says, “worth living for.” And what’d he do to her?
When I picture Susan, all I see is a mannequin in negligees lounging in the apartment Brice has paid for, a ripe, neglected tragedy in waiting. You can almost imagine her drinking her time away in an attempt to make boring life conform to her hyperactive mind. It’s not so much her repression and exploitation I weigh, though: it’s all that potential, that antic energy tingling for expression – not so much sexualized as sexy, yearning to be uncorked. This is why she shouts I LOVE TOM FERRELL out the top of his convertible en route to their weekend getaway after their few days’ courtship: it’s the freedom he affords her (this Soviet plant) that she’s enamored of – freedom they find together. She’s the true heart of America, under the thumb of a system divided against itself, one that might actually love her if it weren’t fatefully bound to the political machine. She is my alcohol, what gets me high in my time of deprivation.
Superficial as our knowledge of her may be, we feel her absence as the story turns from military romance along the stale, jingoistic lines of an Officer and a Gentleman or a Top Gun and toward the Boy’s Own espionage tale it spends the bulk of its time being. That’s why the few times we return to her friend Nina feel so welcome, despite supermodel Iman’s unpolished performance: This energy isn’t only libidinal, it’s decidedly feminine on top. Maybe the engines Garland was finished with, like the clock overshadowing Fearing’s original, were the gears of a different, masculine power and the political grind Farrell (that complementary animal essence – the beast in the machine) has risen up from within in order to take down.
In furthering this mission, Tom has a fixer of his own – Sam Hesselman, the only other character besides Scott who has a history with him, making each man an offshoot of the core personality. As head of the Pentagon’s tech team with the ability to manipulate data and control the mainframe, he’s the functional, mechanical aspect of cognition. While Scott conspires to frame Farrell, Sam helps his friend by planting, retroactively, evidence against Brice while also slowing the visual-enhancement program being applied to Susan’s aborted Polaroid of her lover. Much of the suspense of the latter half of the movie derives from this process and the threat it poses to Tom even as it literalizes the desire for recognition he voiced in his opening interrogation. When the mirror opens to birth his doppelganger on the picture’s resolution, we see one action is predicated on the other, as it had been all through the drama.
Like a stealth submarine from the empire of Fearing’s Clock, there’s a motif of timing or timeliness running through the film. Several issues involve prematurity, in meetings between Farrell and first Brice then a CIA agent, finally Tom’s peeling of the Polaroid. The effect is of a mind reacting to information before it was ready to deal with it. So much of the story involves connections missed and made (mostly missed) that one gets an impression of the enormous amount of referencing and cross-indexing our minds perform even outside times of crisis. And of the immediacy of the information that does reach consciousness through all the obstacles it faces.
So when another of these dream-koans came to me recently, I had to respect what it took to reach from the depths of my unconscious, like one of Cocteau’s Orphelian radio transmissions. It is a part of genius to reject untruth. This is the lesson direct, sensible Susan was there to make me recognize – to shirk the duplicities incumbent on my position and honor the gifts of vision my submarine mind had been leaking to me all the time. To live with what she described in a line in a poem I read of hers once, in language as simple and certain as one of my maxims. It was a guidebook in three short words for cutting through the ambiguities and complexities of a mind and milieu increasingly given to obfuscation and indirection, a solution to the lies I’d hidden behind in roomsful of men with their mirrors and technology: Things just true. Neither blue nor red, woman nor man, Hollywood nor Washington, unconscious nor conscious, United States of Oneirica nor So-Be-It Union. Things. Just. True.
Which leaves room for considering the one true thing at the heart of this mystery you almost never think about when you think about the film: the evidence Tom has Sam register in the computer banks – Brice’s jewel-box gift to Susan. Running neck and neck with the gift’s ingestion is Tom’s similar drive to get the engraving on it translated while outrunning the developing Polaroid. It’s all an effort to bring the mind to recognize something so elusive it has to use unconventional, even unethical means to get it to awareness.
The message on the box is, on the face of it, so inconsequential it has to be of primary importance. A GIFT FROM A TRUE FRIEND, it reads. Bestowed on Brice by a Middle Eastern dignitary, this box functions as a totem of something even Brice is insufficiently appreciative of – it comes from such a foreign source – but he knows enough to share it with her anyway. Gene Hackman, who plays Brice, specialized in characters like himself not prone to unmanly introspection but seeming to have real depths were he brought to it. So there’s a lot we don’t know about the secretary, too, genuine affection he couldn’t show, whether for reasons of age or politics or appearances. Regardless of the way he treated her and his self-interested actions after her demise, Susan really was all that to him; he simply lacked the ability to bring his dreamboat to the surface. Ain’t it poetic justice this show of tenderness should be the engine of his demise once Farrell has his cherished – faked – evidence at hand?
When Tom’s handlers come to take him to their safe house, he’s sitting by a grave we take to be Susan’s, but without a headstone there’s no way to know for sure. It could as well be Sam’s, or Scott’s – the two dead others sharing her initial, indicating a relation, a community in passing. For all you know, it could be mine. Tom’s removal to that room is an interrogation of this grief. We know little about his feeling for the men, but maybe Susan’s death explains theirs, too; that without her spirit, their body and mind respectively were expendable, their loss inevitable. Once nurturing Mama Capitol is gone, what use are politics and brains, after all?
There are some things I may never know about Susan. The most vexing I keep with me, that I torture myself for never having put to her while she was here, is what could have led her to this – what crash caused her to so devalue herself she should end up in such a needful state? So sad to think of her – positive, creative, most gorgeous of all, brilliant in her conception – given to the engines of negativity. I didn’t love her like I should have while I had the chance; like the actress who played her, Sean Young, she was known to be “difficult.” Whether that meant strong-willed or flighty or contentious or unreliable or just plain off doesn’t even matter anymore. In this time of intrigue all that matters is that I quit directing my investigations outward and turned my attention to the second truth sensed in the beginning: that presence behind the mirror.
That is – mirrors; or glasses. Besides the opening two-way, Susan is seen sitting at her vanity when Tom notes Brice’s gift; she later plunges through a glass coffee table on her fall from the balcony, as Tom breaks through a glass door in his final pursuit. It’s in front of another mirror, in the bathroom, he composes himself on learning of her death. There are glass walls around the phone booth where he contacts his handlers midway, as there are around Hesselman’s office, and don’t forget the CRT Tom’s ghostly Polaroid finds slow, gestative resolution behind. So who’s behind the mirrors Brice is also seen in front of, dressing for an event and in his office discussing Susan’s murder? Yuri finally gets to confront his doppelganger in the coda; it’s time I confronted my own, now.
Let me be clear, though, first of all: I cared for Susan. Care for her still. I choose to remain in her mystery, choose not to get over her. Life’s less without her around. I saw myself when I saw her, and once you do that it’s all over. All the lies you told yourself to get by before wilt and wither, and it’s impossible to return to the empire of disinformation, self-delusion, complacency, self-exploitation. I wanted to be a hero; how did I end up the villain?
That said, then, let me speak directly to her now, my mirror-amour: America – the woman, not the country.
This is a song of mourning, composed beside an unmarked grave. It’s uncanny quiet here: the silence when something elemental has passed or a sensation that touched you so rawly it seemed it could change the world has fizzled into peculiarity.
The thing I miss most is that feeling of self-lessness, of leaving your body and becoming one with an other. Because this is really less about finding yourself in someone else as it is finding yourself is someone else – a shadow on a ceiling, communicating, stateless. Not even your own – the shadows of the trees outside brushing together, confiding, conspiring. I was another person when I was with you. Now I drink myself into a swoon sometimes to remind myself how it felt to be with you; to be you. One day I might just abandon reason altogether. For all the beauty the world can conjure I know there’ll be other ideas, other experiments, but how could there be another America?
You can’t question a thing that wills itself into being. Whatever it is, is because it needs to be; something needs it to be. We had the sense to want each other, driven by the desire to break out of our norms; I thought I could break through with you – through history, convention, programming, even this goddamned mirror. But when you went through that table, you came crashing through the mirror too, through my own image, into me. I haven’t figured out what to do with us yet, where to go with all this. It’s not even you I’m celebrating, anymore; it’s the you in me, the presence you’ve left behind. Once you found your way into me, there was no way out. Now there’s no way back.
There’s another gift proffered in this film besides Brice’s to you, and it’s just as subtle. It’s your picture of Tom. What the Pentagon saw as a threat and an adversary, you saw differently, and you wanted him to know. His image’s developing across both investigations casts them and his actions as contributing to its gathering clarity, but it’s you who forced this beautiful ghostly image to unpixelate through the magic of ’80s technology so he could see himself through your eyes: laughing, unfettered, enjoying himself in the intimacy of your room. Though the men produced it as a piece of evidence, for you it’s proof of another truth about him, how a person coming into your embrace could be purified and turned into an agent of cleansing – for a degraded system, never mind a nation. It’s a redemptive vision, one that’ll survive you and their demise, both.
That’s why I sing for an America that will never be back but that left us with such vivifying memories. You’re not lost, not past, not buried. You’re active, vital, real, brilliant, beautiful, crazy, still alive, in me.
Whoever that may be.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.