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MOVIES : Corruption, Heroism and America : German director Wolfgang Petersen set out to distill the essence of our country and its heroes and villains in a political assassin thriller

July 04, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"The question of who the heroes and villains are today is extremely complicated," says director Wolfgang Petersen of "In the Line of Fire," the political thriller opening Friday that stars John Malkovich as an assassin and Clint Eastwood as the Secret Service agent tracking him. "On one level John Malkovich's character is clearly the villain of this story because you shouldn't do the reprehensible things he does, but on a deeper level--and this is what makes the film interesting--this is not a black-and-white situation, and John's character has good reasons for what he does.

"The film is a real indictment of Washington, and when John's character says, 'Nothing they told me was true and there's nothing left worth fighting for,' I think his words will resonate for many people," Petersen continues during an interview in the Culver City offices of Radient Productions, his company which signed a non-exclusive, first look deal with TriStar in 1991.

"The film is rooted in a profound pessimism about what's unfortunately happened to this country in the last 30 years. Look around--the corruption is everywhere, and there's not much to celebrate. If you go see the Lincoln Memorial today, you get a very funny feeling because there are no Lincolns around anymore."

With Clint Eastwood hot off of "Unforgiven," one of the most critically acclaimed films of his career, "In the Line of Fire" should do good box office from the gate. But anyone who goes expecting a straight-shooting action picture is in for a surprise because this film, which also stars Rene Russo and Dylan McDermott and is based on a screenplay by Jeff McGuire, aims for a lot more.

For starters, Eastwood's character, a morose, alcoholic Secret Service agent, is a loser of sorts, and we're not used to seeing one of the biggest heroes of American popular culture that way. Moreover, the politics of the picture are complicated by the fact that the President he is assigned to protect is such a corrupt and empty cardboard cut-out figure that he hardly seems worth Eastwood's time.

The plot thickens even more by virtue of the fact that Malkovich's character--ostensibly the psychopath of the story--has frequent passages of dialogue where he rails about how he, along with the entire country, have been sold down the river by anonymous fat cats in Washington, and the things he says make a lot of sense. Midway through the film, one is apt to feel completely confused as to whom to root for.

"The villain in this story is the general public, which, if you'll excuse me, is intensely stupid," says Malkovich, whose character assumes a series of identities as the story unfolds. "They get the world and the leaders they deserve.

"I would also add that if you take a decent person--and one might quibble over whether decent people go into politics . . . I don't have an answer for that--but take a decent person and constantly revile them, and try and uncover anything they might've done wrong, then put it on 'Geraldo,' and my guess is this will not be conducive to great behavior. If you expect the best from people and let them know you expect the best in a way that's humane, you'll probably get something a little better than what we get."

Made for $39 million on locations in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles during a 16-week shoot that began last October, "In the Line of Fire" is the first film made with the full cooperation of the Secret Service.

"They didn't agree to help us because they thought the film would portray them in a heroic light--Clint plays a pretty flawed character, and John's character makes some very negative points about the Secret Service," says the 52-year-old director, whose 1981 film about a doomed German submarine in World War II, "Das Boot," won him international acclaim. "I think the Secret Service was interested in the possibility of their world being accurately portrayed in a Hollywood film for the first time. They didn't want us to make a commercial for them, they just wanted it to be real, and though they had no creative control, they made many suggestions we happily accepted.

"I was thrilled to get to talk to these people too, because I've always been fascinated by the Secret Service," continues Petersen, an affable man who, unlike many European directors, seems completely at ease working within the constraints of the American film industry. "This is a very elite group--worldwide there are only about 2,000 agents--and I'm mystified by what motivates these people to take on this work. Speaking as a German, it strikes me as a peculiarly American kind of heroism.

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