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Ground Zero (1987, Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles)

Ground Zero opens with a title card attesting to the film’s historical relevance. The intended effect is apparently to convince the viewer of the film’s authenticity and plausibility. So, for a film featuring a cameraman who can outfight spies, Ground Zero is completely plausible until the helicopter shows up. Not the first helicopter, but the second one… in a scene straight out of Capricorn One.

The film’s first act gradually–almost in a Hitchcockian vein–introduces the viewer to the cameraman and his present situation. We find out a lot about him through nice disguised exposition (messages left on the answering machine) and because Colin Friels gives such a good leading man performance, even some of the cute stuff is acceptable. It’s probably fifteen or sixteen minutes before the first completely implausible thing happens and, when it does, it’s so well-handled, it didn’t raise my eyebrows until I got to thinking about it.

There’s a lot more preposterous scenes, but the opening text, the first act and Friels make it all seem reasonable. He really can figure it out, he really can sneak into a secure area. Maybe, as an American viewer, I just assume the Australian government doesn’t have much in the way of security measures.

Regardless, until the final third of the film, it’s going rather well.

Besides Friels, there’s Jack Thompson, who gives a nice, conflicted performance. When Donald Pleasence shows up, he’s got some nice scenes too… even if they do culminate in him shooting at a helicopter with a rifle.

The end works on some levels and fails on others. The one it works on is the non-fantastic level Ground Zero doesn’t seem to be going for–the emphasis on Friels and his son, which occasionally feels like hyperbole, comes through at the end rather effectively. So much so, it becomes one of the film’s handful of mini-cliffhangers. A number of threads go unresolved for no sensical reason, other than any explanation would be impossible in the narrative. There’s not really enough mysteriousness to them for me, but I can understand it. In a government conspiracy film–a straightforward one aiming for plausibility–the enigma level has to be kept low.

Where Ground Zero is most effective is the direction. Pattinson and Myles have solid composition throughout, really fetishizing the filmmaking gear. There’s a shot at the beginning with a Panavision camera–the film’s shot in Panavision–and it’s a clear reference. The wide frame works beautifully for the scenes on the outback, but most interesting is not the non-landscape shots. Instead, it’s the ones where Friels is alone. Friels spends a lot of the movie investigating and uncovering–Ground Zero‘s a nice detective movie in its way–and so he’s got the frame to himself a lot of the time. Myles and Pattinson give Friels a fine space to inhabit and he does.

Ground Zero‘s more a thriller than an action movie, but it’s failings are more common to the action movie. But the guy discovering something’s wrong and trying to uncover it is a thriller standard. Maybe that incongruity is the reason it doesn’t work as well as it should.

But there’s also that helicopter. There’s not much to be done with a helicopter.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles; written by Mac Gudgeon and Jan Sardi; director of photography, Steve Dobson; edited by David Pulbrook; music by Tom Bahler; production designer, Brian Thomson; produced by Pattinson; released by Avenue Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Harvey Denton), Jack Thompson (Trebilcock), Donald Pleasence (Prosper Gaffney), Natalie Bate (Pat Denton), Burnham Burnham (Charlie), Simon Chilvers (Commission president), Neil Fitzpatrick (Hooking) and Bob Maza (Walemari).


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Ground Zero (1987, Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles)

Until the current administration, I could always take comfort knowing the British probably did more terrible things than the Americans ever could. For instance, they might test atomic bombs in Australia and radiate the aborigines, which is the public service announcement of Ground Zero. It isn’t only a PSA, it’s also a reasonably thrilling thriller and a strange father and son story. But the relevance–the British trying to cover up killing a bunch of innocent people–makes Ground Zero an odd film. By all other elements, it’s an Australian take on the mid-1980s thriller–it was shot in Panavision (though the only releases to date have been pan and scan and it’s obvious there’s often something or someone missing) and it’s got a really annoying, mid-1980s synthesizer score booming throughout… sometimes too loud to hear dialogue.

But it’s a good mystery thriller. It fetishizes filmmaking a little–the camera operators in particular–and its handling of that material is very cool. It actually goes just the right amount into it, which is a pleasant change. The political element takes the film over at a certain point and it’s an immediate change in tone, but there’s a solid foundation, both due to script and Colin Friels.

Friels’s performance–complete with a mid-1980s, Australian semi-mullet–allows Ground Zero to operate on its three levels (suspenseful thriller, politically relevant piece, and son searching for his father). None of the three levels gets quite the attention they need or deserve, but Friels makes them all work together–he convinces he’s a father trying to be better for his son, while still confused about his own father, he convinces he’s a regular guy in the middle of the political intrigue (Hitchcock wisely wrapped his situations in a layer of artiface, something Ground Zero might have benefitted greatly from doing), and also the movie star. Friels is a leading man movie star, but he’s also able to be someone’s father (something American movie stars do not do well–or at all anymore… Clooney hasn’t been a parent since he hit the big time).

The other performances, particularly Jack Thompson, are very good. Donald Pleasence has a small role and, even though the script fails him, he has some excellent moments.

I remember the film being more of a “wow,” but it has been at least seven–maybe nine–years since I last saw it. It’s incredibly solid though and sometimes solid is good enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles; written by Mac Gudgeon and Jan Sardi; director of photography, Steve Dobson; edited by David Pulbrook; music by Tom Bahler; production designer, Brian Thomson; produced by Pattinson; released by Avenue Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Harvey Denton), Jack Thompson (Trebilcock), Donald Pleasence (Prosper Gaffney), Natalie Bate (Pat Denton), Burnham Burnham (Charlie), Simon Chilvers (Commission president), Neil Fitzpatrick (Hooking) and Bob Maza (Walemari).


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