Published December 1, 2000
At one point in Proof of Life, directed by Taylor Hackford, Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan) — who, by the way, is the second movie heroine in a month to share my name — asks Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), the hot-shot K & R (Kidnap and Ransom) specialist negotiating for the release of her kidnapped husband, Peter (David Morse), if he believes things happen for a reason. Naturally, she means bad things. Like being kidnapped by South American guerrillas. On the whole, she is disposed to believe that they do not. They just happen. But I couldn’t help wondering if she thought this movie was happening for a reason — I mean a reason apart from the reason all movies happen, to make money. Did she, for instance, wonder what had happened to the moral problem that the movie had raised and then buried beneath a more or less routine Hollywood rescue caper? Was the caper itself enough of a reason for her to be making this movie and — just by the way — wrecking her real-life marriage to Dennis Quaid by a highly publicized on-set affair with Mr. Crowe?
The question is particularly piquant because the moral problem I mentioned has precisely to do with infidelity. The gallant Thorne, who offers his services to Mrs Bowman gratis after she has been denied help by her husband’s employer, a wicked multinational oil company (what do you expect?), finds himself falling in love with her. And she, the distraught wife desperate to get her husband back, nevertheless finds herself falling for him. You can see that this might be a problem, particularly for Mr. Thorne whose conflict of interest becomes acute when he has reason to believe that Peter Bowman is dead. Alice is disposed to accept the report of hubby’s death, but Thorne, being the sort of honorable paladin that he is, has to make sure — and, even at the risk of his own life, to do everything possible to rescue the man who has suddenly become his rival in love. Not since Brief Encounter (1945) have the movies offered us such a paean to what has since come pejoratively to be called the “repression” of sexual desire.
Of course, one wants to stand up and cheer the very attempt. Could it we wonder, presage a new and hopeful trend in Hollywood? Somehow I doubt it. Having raised the subject of its stars’ virtuous continence, the movie seemingly can do nothing with it but show them being continent for a moment and then turn to other things. Moreover, the fact that the fiction has been so overshadowed by the real-life shenanigans of its stars should bring us back to earth with a bump. Miss Ryan, of course, had not even the excuse for getting out of her panties — or was it the fetching sleepwear in which she several times appears here? — for Mr Crowe that her character did. Poor Mr. Quaid was not kidnapped and presumed dead — though perhaps she would argue that, like Alice Bowman, she was frightened and alone in a strange land (England) and grateful for the protection of a hunky guy. But for those of us looking on, it was almost as if she had to demonstrate in the most forceful way she could that the fiction which her day job involved her in creating for us was only that. In real life, or at least life as real as it gets in Hollywood, people just don’t deny their sexual impulses like that.
From one point of view, this was a form of self-sabotage. But you could also see it as a kind of post-modern commentary on the film, as if Mr Hackford had had written into the script an off-camera affair for his stars in order to make the same point that directors like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas make by their careful crafting of tongue-in-cheek artificialities. That is to say, they need to tell us in this way that we are not to insult them by supposing that they suppose that any of this stuff is real. They know it’s just a movie, and they want us to know they know it. That way, both director and audience can become a sort of co-conspirators against reality — children whose delight in their fiction is precisely that it offers not an imitation of but an insulation against adult realities. What I don’t understand about Proof of Life is why they pretended to be interested in an adult moral question in the first place if they were going to do so little with it. Maybe the money-men stepped in and said: “There are not enough machine guns and shoulder-mounted rockets and grimy-looking peasant banditos doing bullet-assisted back-flips in this movie. Get some in.” Naturally, something had to make room for them.