Director John McTiernan at La Cinémathèque Française's masterclass.
Last autumn, my friend and colleague, Christopher Small, and I took the vacation of a lifetime to Paris. Did we go to eat macarons, drink wine and sneak a peek at the Mona Lisa? No, no we didn’t. We went to Paris to watch movies. Movies? Yes, movies. Did we go to Paris to watch the latest Godard, visit the site of the first cinema screening or drink beer with friendly Parisians until 4 in the morning? No, but we did anyway. What Christopher and I went to Paris to do was to watch John McTiernan’s movies on glorious 35mm at the Cinémathèque Française.
To understand how special this trip was, I should probably provide a bit of background information: my husband, Jake Barningham
, and his best friend, Daniel Gorman
, started Mission:McTiernan
back in 2010. They were right there with Notebook alum’s John Lehtonen and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the inception of what we now call vulgar auteurism. A lifelong McTiernan fan, Christopher eventually found their blog and made his writing debut there in 2011. Shortly after, he made his entrance on the Notebook with a great piece on McTiernan’s Rollerball (2002)
Christopher and I became buddies in late 2012 after I’d already moved to the Czech Republic from Chicago. He encouraged me to ask John Hyams for an interview
and our later conversations eventually led to me conceiving of the idea for The Vulgar Cinema
while washing dishes one early spring afternoon in 2013. My crew and I wrote letters to McTiernan
while he was in prison for our first series. You can see how much the director means to me by reading my letter
. I owe a lot to the guy.
When the Cinematheque announced that they were going to have a retrospective dedicated to McTiernan, Christopher and I were obviously thrilled. One of our favorite directors was finally getting his due! The French had been very kind to McTiernan during his incarceration and this retro was the logical next step. The stars somehow aligned and both Mr. Small and myself were able to make the trip to Paris. We not only got to meet each other in person for the first time, but we also got to see nine out of eleven of McTiernan’s movies (all but Die Hard
and The Hunt for Red October
), meet the director himself (I have no memory of what I said!) and, most amazingly, witness McTiernan get a standing ovation at the end of his masterclass
Though Christopher and I never made it to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre (and only accidentally happened upon the Champs-Élysées on our way to a movie), I loved every single moment of our atypical holiday in Paris, and hope I can go back someday. Many, many thanks are due to the Cinémathèque Française and their lovely customer service and marketing teams for being so gracious and hospitable. More thanks are due to the MUBI team for their kindness and understanding, and to McTiernan himself for signing our autographs and taking the time to talk to me for a few minutes. Lastly, I’d like to thank Christopher for joining me on this adventure. We’ll always have Paris and Predator.
What follows below is an essay on McTiernan’s last movie, Basic, and how its heroine (visually) fits and doesn't fit into the mold of the typical McTiernan hero. Yippee-ki-yay!
John McTiernan isn't typically associated with strong female characters. This is understandable because, outside of his debut feature, Nomads, the director has never made a film that is entirely about women or women's issues. That's not to say his movies don't have intelligent women, because they do; but McTiernan is normally caught up in the relationships between people and never studies the ladies on their own. Women also rarely interact with one another in a McTiernan film. The women that are featured in his movies – Rene Russo's sexy detective in Thomas Crown Affair, Bonnie Bedelia's successful businesswoman in Die Hard, Lorraine Bracco's headstrong doctor in Medicine Man – are usually forced to navigate what are traditionally masculine settings and situations.
My favorite McTiernan heroine is his last to date: Connie Nielsen's Captain Julia Osborne in the director’s last feature, 2003’s Basic. Captain Osborne is the first of McTiernan’s women who could really be considered a bona fide hero. In that role, she is both emblematic of past McTiernan women (and some of his male sidekicks) and some of the director’s most famous protagonists, including John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard, “Eben” (Antonio Banderas) in The 13th Warrior and Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Predator. As a captain in the military, she thrives in masculine settings and situations and excels in putting her narrative puzzle pieces together, which is a trait required of every McTiernan protagonist.
In the film, McTiernan's most visually and narratively complex, Osborne's role as guide to the audience is paramount. She is constantly trying to keep up with and hold her own against disgraced DEA agent Hardy, played with typical boyish charm by John Travolta. As the saying goes, there's more to him than meets the eye. She weaves along through his mischievous investigative tactics – a task that becomes more difficult as they move deeper into the incredibly dense plot. Samuel L. Jackson plays Sgt. West, a cruel bastard who is in charge of training Army Rangers. When West and four other soldiers turn up dead after a routine training exercise in Panama—on Day of the Dead, no less—Osborne and Hardy are sent in to not only interrogate the two surviving witnesses of the incident, but also stitch a story and chain of events together.
An unusually lucid speaker on the subject of his own films, McTiernan offers many points of interest throughout his DVD commentary of the movie. But these two seem to pertain directly to Osborne:
1) “She's the audience's representative. She's the detective. She's the one trying to get to the truth.”
2) “The camera isn't just moving for the sake of keeping it moving. The camera is an active narrator in a thriller. The camera has to tell you how to evaluate every piece information you get and put it into context."
Osborne and the camera have a direct link with one another as narrators, truth-seekers and partners in crime solving.
When we first see Osborne, she is interrogating the prime suspect in the case, Lt. Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). The interrogation room is typical: a cold, sterile environment lined with cinder blocks and bolted-down steel furniture. The room is bifurcated by the contrasting blue paint on the walls – dark blue on the bottom half and light blue on the top. This perfectly matches the contrasting blue on Osborne's Army uniform. Though she doesn't have a single costume change in the movie, Osborne's uniform and the way she wears it is unusually instructive. Her clothes are crisp, clean and the way she moves in it exudes confidence. These are qualities that Agent Hardy later acknowledges as important in assessing the character of suspects - “Is he cute?” he asks Osborne about Lt. Dunbar, both in an attempt to asses Dunbar’s character and take her down a peg or two. Agent Hardy mistakes Osborne’s very real professionalism and self-confidence as a front, probably because he, as a bit of a flirty chauvinist, has never met a woman with as much of either before. Captain Osborne feels perfectly in-sync with her environment. She even moves in perfect parallel with the wall paint. For the moment, she is in her element.
The first scene that shows Osborne might be different from other McTiernan women occurs during her first interrogation scene with Lt. Dunbar. In typical McTiernan fashion, there’s a playful bit of number crunching: Osborne holds up four fingers, in reference to the four recently deceased Army Ranger trainees. Soon after, Lt.Dunbar hides the number 8 on a handwritten note that he writes in lieu of speaking. Is she only getting half the truth? The memorization of numbers also often plays an important role in McTiernan's cinema. Think of McClane's terrorist hit-list in Die Hard, or the number games played by Simon in Die Hard: with a Vengeance. These numbers are an essential part of the puzzle Captain Osborne is putting together. A puzzle, which, McTiernan trusts her enough with to complete.
One of the most entertaining things in Basic is the banter between Agent Hardy and Osborne. Though their chemistry is no where near as strong as Rene Russo's and Pierce Brosnan's sexy cat-and-mouse shenanigans in The Thomas Crown Affair, Hardy and Osborne bicker and flirt like nobody's business. They're not on an even playing field, though – as sort of a double agent, Hardy is almost always in charge of the conversation and narrative sequences because he knows how all of the puzzle pieces fit together and needs to control Osborne's actions to obtain his goal.
The scene below illustrates both their flirtatious relationship and Hardy's control over the movie's events. It's almost like a dance.
Hardy becomes angry and leaves the building to smoke a cigarette outside in the pouring rain. Osborne follows and both characters hold their arms out in exasperation as they walk toward a beam that not only mimics their arm gestures (themselves mimics of each other, Osborne moves first and Hardy mimics), but also obstructs their bodies during their heated conversation. She stands with her head entirely inside the triangle-shaped beam while Hardy stands outside the architecture, reestablishing his freedom from the narrative.
They argue over the investigation, he occasionally encroaches her space. McTiernan breaks-up the geometric back-and-forth when Hardy seemingly lets his guard down. The scene opens up when Hardy feeds Osborne an important clue in the case, though, as you can see, Captain Osborne is still (metaphorically and visually) obscured in the background.
But not for long.
In a sense, Captain Osborne's character fulfills a role similar to that of Sgt. Al Powell's (Reginald VelJohnson) in Die Hard
. They even share a similar shooting scene. In Die Hard, Powell’s character has been put on office duty because he shot a young boy that was playing with a toy gun
. He thought it was an adult waving around a real gun. This event basically rendered his character impotent because he was too afraid to use his weapon. That is, until Powell becomes a key member of McClane’s offense and needs to use his gun to shoot Karl (Alexander Godunov) at the end of the movie. In most of the picture, though, Powell is permanently stationed far below the action, only knowing and understanding the status of the hostage situation secondhand through protagonist John McClane. Similarly, Captain Osborne can only push forward in the mystery by responding and reacting to the clues that are fed to her by Hardy and the results he creates. The passage and dissemination of information is vitally important in a McTiernan film. Nearly all of his protagonists are thrown into confusing situations and forced to think on their feet. Picture Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) trying to understand Ramius' (Sean Connery) motives from thousands of miles away in The Hunt for Red October
, or the team in Predator
slowly realizing they're being hunted, or even John McClane himself. He can only tell Powell what he knows by studying and listening to the actions of the terrorists.
McTiernan's characters are also foolhardy professionals. Sgt. Powell helps McClane in Die Hard by staying on the ground and acting (or at least trying to act) as a liaison between him and the law. McClane is the hero in the skyscraper and Powell is the sidekick below. In Basic, Capt.Osborne almost functions that way in relation to Agent Hardy because he knows all the information and she doesn't. But Osborne isn't merely a bystander waiting tofind out what happens; she's directly involved and wants to be the hero, wants to be John McClane. However, up until she learns drugs are involved in the investigation, Osborne always puts Army regulations and her job first. It's not until she loosens her tie and acts a little reckless, acts more like McClane with his no-fucks-to-give attitude or Rollerball’s Jonathan Cross after learning about the game’s corruption, that the mystery starts opening up for her. Shortly before the death of a particularly colorful witness in the case, Kendall (Giovani Ribisi) paints the number eight on Osborne's hand with his blood, thus completing the number game from the beginning of the movie and smacking the clues of the mystery open like a baseball bat to a pinata.
There's something to be said of Powell’s shooting scene and the masculine pride that comes with it (he got his cojones back!), but Capt. Osborne's blood-riddle has much more of a visceral and visual impact because it's not just an instantaneous decision. It's also not part of her duty as an Army Captain – when Powell shoots the terrorist, he's doing so as a legal police officer. When Osborne puts two-and-two together with the bloody eight and when she fires her gun, she's overstepping her bounds as an Army official because she's not following protocol. Even still, Osborne doesn't make snap decisions. You can actually see her thinking and searching for a resolution in both instances, learning the language of the problem at hand like “Eben” in The 13th Warrior. After Kendall bloodies her palm, she pauses, looks at it and establishes a connection between the bloody number and the number Dunbar originally wrote on the piece of paper earlier in the film. McTiernan frames Osborne in a medium close-up with her hand serving as the focal point. Her head is only half-in-view and her hand is stretched horizontally, making the figure eight look like the infinity symbol. She then raises her hand vertically to show the eight to Hardy and the camera pans slightly to show her entire face, which is fixed with a profoundly confident expression. A light bulb flashing above her head couldn't do any better.
She thinks she’s solved the puzzle.
This ah-ha moment is merely a prelude to the unraveling of the film's central mystery because it puts certain events in motion that take Osborne entirely out of the sidekick role. She soon discovers that everything - the murders, the interrogation, Agent Hardy's investigative actions - are all a lie, an elaborate ruse set-up to capture Army drug dealers. She uses her instinct to make this discovery. She shoots her corrupt boss after he pulls a gun on Hardy, which turns her into an Army hero and should mark the end of the mystery. But it’s not that easy.
The “dance” scene is repeated. This time it happens inside Osborne’s jeep. She’s no longer obscured by the architecture of the objects around her, only by Hardy because he’s towering over her slightly. He’s all that stands in her way from really solving the puzzle.
After supposedly cracking the murder investigation and drug scandal, Osborne senses that Hardy knows more than he says and follows him through the colorful hell of Panama’s Day of the Dead celebration. It's never enough for a McTiernan protagonist to simply finish the problem at hand, they also need to tie up every loose end. It wasn't enough for John McClane (and company) to stop the school bombing in Die Hard with a Vengeance, he needed to capture arch-villain Simon Gruber. Similarly, it's not enough for Osborne to "solve" the murder investigation and drug scandal, she needs to know how and why Hardy tricked her. The story - or her job - isn’t really finished otherwise.
My favorite image of Capt. Osborne in the film isn't very showy, but it reminds me a lot of the opening of Rio Bravo and serves the same purpose. Both Osborne and John Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance are the pinnacles of truth in their separate universes and have just inflicted violence in the name of justice. These towering images recognize them as being powerful, strong and right in their actions. As a McTiernan heroine, Osborne has the privilege of being in the hands of a filmmaker who has created some of cinema’s best and most well-remembered heroes. Like McClane, Dutch in Predator and Ramius in Hunt for Red October, McTiernan wants to see his hero(ine) succeed, wants to see Osborne overcome the odds and think well on her feet. If every woman in an American action movie could be framed like John Wayne or be portrayed as bravely as Bruce Willis in Die Hard, it's exhilarating to imagine what future McTiernan heroines could be like. I hope we all have the opportunity to find out.