Published February 1, 2001
John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes makes the typical mistake of movies that attempt to satirize the celebrity-obsessed media culture of which, inevitably, they themselves are a part. In fact, so reliably do movies like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers or Costa Gavras’s Mad City get it wrong that the suspicious-minded might be tempted to think that these alleged “satires” are actually intended to provide cover for the corrupt and irresponsible media that are their ostensible targets. Thus, too, in 15 Minutes, the appearance in cameo roles of Roseanne and Peter Arnett ought to be the tip-off that, awful as media people may otherwise be, their willingness to acknowledge their own awfulness and even to make fun of it is the most awful thing about them. Qui s’accuse s’excuse, as the French say, and here’s the proof of it. Media people in self-critical mode are not really sorry for or ashamed of what they do but secretly proud of it.
You can tell because they always accuse themselves of the wrong thing—of having no scruples. In fact they go through scruples like hairspray. They’re nothing but scruples. That’s just the problem. The more they agonize about the heavy burden of their responsibility to their audience the more they prove that they are so tightly packed with conscience that you couldn’t slip a match-head in them along with it—and obviously anyone so bursting with conscience can be trusted to do pretty much as he likes. 15 Minutes comes under the heading of yet another redundant demonstration of the media’s conscience. The talk show host, Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammar) is supposed to be willing to do anything to get a leg up on the competition, even to pay a murderer in order to show his murder on screen.
Of course, when it comes to intruding into someone’s privacy, or using the most lurid film stock of crime or accident victims, TV news and talk shows are willing to go pretty far, but we can’t really believe that even a sleaze like Hawkins would collude with a murderer to bring his own videotape to the TV screen for the sake of money and publicity. Apart from anything else, it would make it clear to the world that he was a sleaze. As the fire chief in this movie says, “perception is reality” for these people, and such a stunt would produce some very bad perceptions. No, the problem isn’t that they don’t have a conscience but that their conscience is always on display—which means that it isn’t conscience at all but the show of conscience.
The film does make some effort to catch the appalling sanctimoniousness of Hawkins, but what it misses is what we should surely see the most of from any real Hawkins, namely his public agonizing about whether or not he has “gone too far” with the things that he has shown on the air. We hear him saying of his showing of the murder tape that “I do so with a heavy heart…but, as a journalist, I am obligated to do it.” But this is mere hypocrisy. When the camera is off him the guy has no conscience at all. A real talk show host in place would really have a heavy heart—and would really believe in that guff about his responsibilities as a journalist, not merely use it as a cover for his drive to win ratings.
In somewhat the same way, the depiction of the Russian murderer, Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) does not ring true. Conservatives may think that their views are being flattered when Herzfeld makes this monster say: “I love America: Nobody is responsible for what they do” and for seeing at once the potential for exploitation by the unscrupulous of the idea of “low self-esteem.” His plan is to make himself rich and famous and get himself off several murder raps by pleading insanity. Or low self-esteem. “We are insane,” he says in broken English; “who else but crazy man would film their crimes?” But when the camera is off him he exults that “because of your double jeopardy law, we can’t be tied for the same crime twice. We come out free, rich and famous.”
“You think a jury will believe that?” he is asked.
“You watch crybaby talk shows all day long,” he says. “Americans will believe; they will cry for me.” And it begins to look as if he’s right, too, until he makes what might seem the rather obvious mistake of selling his story to the media before he is put on trial. Presumably, Herzfeld is letting his story run a bit long and hasn’t got the time for a trial. Either that or he’s fudging the fact that there are several laws which would prevent Emil from exploiting the system in the way that he plans, or hamstringing the police as he does with the help of the media and his crooked lawyer. By pretending to ourselves that even a ruthless killer like this could work the system to make murder pay we lose sight of the things that less luridly presented villains actually can do to exploit and corrupt the system. Could that have been the intention of this wildly exaggerated fable?