Proof of Life
Screenplay : Tony Gilroy (inspired by the Vanity Fair article "Adventures in the Ransom Trade " by William Prochnau and the book The Long March To Freedom by Thomas Hargrove)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Meg Ryan (Alice Bowman), Russell Crowe (Terry Thorne), David Morse (Peter Bowman), David Caruso (Dino), Pamela Reed (Janis Bowman)
In Taylor Hackford's Proof of Life, Russell Crowe gets to keep his native Australian accent as Terry Thorne, an ex-soldier-turned-hostage-negotiator whose expertise is K&R (kidnapping and ransom). He deals mainly with extracting businessmen and politicians who are snatched by extremist groups in the farthest reaches of the world--Russia, southeast Asia, South America. He is calm, collected, and hardened. He understands kidnapping as a game that people are forced to play, and he knows all the in's and out's of the rules. Crowe, whose movie star persona is grounded in his ability to project an unswerving, steely confidence that covers a soft heart, was a perfect choice for the role. Unfortunately, screenwriter Tony Gilroy has underwritten the part, which gives Crowe little to do but look alternately tough and soft.
For instance, Terry has been a bit shaken by his most recent extraction, which involved his getting a businessman and winding up in the middle of a battle between revolutionaries and the Russian army. This is depicted in the film's opening credits sequence, and its effect on his character would seem to carry a great deal of weight for the rest of the film. Instead, it is literally dropped in the first five minutes and never referenced again.
Instead, we cut immediately to Terry's new assignment, an American engineer named Peter Bowman (David Morse). Bowman has been subcontracted by a huge oil company to build a dam in the fictional South American country of Tecala (actual location photography was done in Ecuador). Bowman sees himself as a helper of the people because the dam will prevent flooding, but when he is snatched by the ELT, a one-time Marxist revolutionary group that now deals exclusively in drugs and kidnapping-for-profit, all they see is an American capitalist who is worth money to his company.
Bowman's wife, Alice (Meg Ryan), doesn't know what to do. Feeling guilty because her last conversation with Peter was a fight (there is the suggestion that they have been fighting a lot over the last few months), she is at a complete loss. Terry comes in and takes control of the situation--that is, until his consulting firm pulls him out when they learn that the oil company does not have a kidnapping insurance policy to cover Peter. Terry ends up working for the Bowmans anyway. Terry risks his life and career for no money because something about Alice apparently gets to him. He eventually begins to fall in love with her over the four-month period that he works to get Peter back, thus making personal what should be purely business.
The attraction between Terry and Alice is so muted it is almost nonexistent. It resides primarily in glances, body language, small talk, and one sudden, but passionate, kiss. The film avoids the Hollywood trap of shoehorning in a torrid sex scene just to have one (apparently one was filmed, but then later cut). Instead, the movie suggests that Alice and Terry feel something strong for each other, but each knows that it cannot be consummated without causing more harm than good. The one kiss between them is infinitely more effective than a sex scene would have been because it combines in one moment both passion and restraint, the conflicting polar ends of their relationship.
Taylor Hackford (Devil's Advocate, Dolores Claiborne) keeps the pace constantly moving; the movie is well over two hours in length, but it never feels long. He cuts back and forth between Peter's being moved deep into the South American jungles and eventually locked up in a small camp in the mountains and Terry and Alice's attempts to get him out. Most of this amounts to Terry on a radio negotiating a ransom deal. As he says near the beginning, there should be no hopes of a heroic extraction. Instead, the best he can do is barter the kidnappers down to a price that the family is able to pay.
Of course, because this is a Hollywood movie, it should come as no great surprise that the climax does involve a heroic extraction. Terry and Dino (David Caruso), another K&R expert, put together a small team of mercenaries and secretly invade the camp where Peter is being held. This sequence feels somewhat tacked on--an unnecessary action set-piece in a thriller that has, up until that point, been primarily about negotiation--but Hackford handles it so well that it is exciting and gratifying, anyway.
Gilroy's script treads carefully when dealing with the ELT. Gilroy seems conscious of the fact that there are groups like it out there, some of whom have gained sympathy for their plights. Gilroy pays lip service to this by allowing many of the ELT guerillas to have personalities. They are not just faceless terrorists, but rather people who are desperate. But, at the same time, because they are "the enemy," we mustn't feel bad for them when Terry and Co. come in with machine guns blazing at the end. Therefore, Gilroy cooks up the explanation that the ELT was once a political organization with true goals, but since the end of the Cold War it has been involved primarily in the drug trade and kidnapping. This functions as a kind of narrative escape clause that justifies the audience's cathartic enjoyment of the bloody Ramboesque finale.
Proof of Life is an entertaining thriller, even if there are some fairly large plot holes and inconsistencies. The fact that it was inspired by two nonfiction sources (a 1998 Vanity Fair article about the kidnapping of an American businessman and Thomas Hargrove's book The Long March to Freedom) gives it a sense of legitimacy, and the discussions of the K&R trade are truly fascinating, if a bit disconcerting (how does one go about affixing a price to a human life?). Interestingly enough, it is these moments that keep the movie intriguing, rather than the on-screen heat between Crowe and Ryan, which never amounts to all that much.
©2000 James Kendrick