Sunday, August 06, 2006

Movie: Wrong Is Right (1982)

All teenagers watch movies repeatedly. Only while my friends would revisit, say, Porky’s or Hardbodies, I’d follow a different drummer. I’d wander the halls of my high school spewing lines from The King of Comedy (“If they were any stronger, you’d hurt yourself. They’re marvelous, ya daffy bastard. Leave ‘em alone, they’re beautiful!”) and no one knew what the hell I was talking about. I’d defend myself by saying, “I’m like that guy in Diner who keeps quoting Sweet Smell of Success.”

To which my friends would reply: “You’re like that guy in what who keeps quoting who?”

Another of my cable staples was this Richard Brooks black comedy. I didn’t love it unreservedly; there were parts I didn’t like, other parts I didn’t get. But it was clearly about something, and it had a bracing cynicism that, to a kid doing time in a suburban high school, smacked of the real world.

I hadn’t thought about the movie in ages. Then it was singled out for praise in GreenCine’s primer on political films, which prompted me to mention my history with it. The ever-sharp-eyed Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, a true Richard Brooks fan, picked up on that, calling me a defender of the film. I wasn’t sure if that was case, but I owed it to my younger self to find out.

The movie is loosely based on a novel by Charles McCarry, a former CIA officer. Sean Connery stars as a showboating, globe-trotting cable news journalist covering a crisis in the Middle East. The cast is rounded out by plenty of familiar faces (George Grizzard, Henry Silva, Robert Webber, Leslie Nielsen, and a very young Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Is the movie any good? In some sense, no. The production was clearly strapped for cash. The opening minutes are lousy. The bombastic music score made my teeth itch. Brooks’ script is choppy and episodic. At times it’s difficult to tell what exactly is being satirized, while at other times the comedy is all too obvious. Robert (Baa Baa Black Sheep) Conrad plays General Wombat, the only wackily-named character in the film. If you’re going to go that route, have the courage of your convictions and slap everybody with an aptronym, a la Dr. Strangelove.

But if anything, Wrong Is Right is even more compulsively watchable now. Its hell-for-leather plot includes Islamic fundamentalist groups employing suicide bombers, an American president mulling a preemptive war in the Middle East and using “executive privilege” to classify conversations before they’re finished, the whole-scale politicization of foreign policy, everyone blaming the incompetence of the intelligence services, and an insatiable media stirring up a frenzy without any regard for the truth. All of it wrapped up with a disquieting scene set atop the World Trade Center and a climax that’s as black as they come.

It’s hard to believe that this movie was made almost 25 years ago, when the only enemy on the Reagan administration’s radar was the evil empire of the Soviet Union. It’s harder still to fathom that there was a time any of this material could have been played for laughs.