Hard to imagine better luck in the film world than the timing of the cracklingly fine thriller “No Way Out” (citywide). Its story? A cover-up within the Pentagon by the secretary of Defense who conducts his own secret investigation--stone-walling the FBI and CIA--and chooses a handsome, decorated military hero to be its point man and possibly its fall guy.
Only Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome” have come this close to actual events before, and “No Way Out” seems more eerily congruent, more sinewy and real. One of the hallmarks of director Roger Donaldson is bedrock believability, done with self-effacing technique. In scenes behind paneled offices or at hilariously predictable political receptions, we get a rare sense that this is exactly what the pols say and just how they say it when the civilians are safely out of earshot.
Donaldson’s other strength--as he demonstrated eloquently in his New Zealand-made “Smash Palace"--is in the bristling tensions of sexual relationships; his players on that battlefield are gorgeous, Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman. Young is the pivotal character; although she’s the mistress of the deeply proprietary Defense secretary (Hackman), she embarks on a steamy love affair with naval hero Costner, based on hot mutual attraction. (These uninhibited love scenes and attendant nudity and language give the film its R rating.) Only afterward does she discover that Costner’s new boss at the Pentagon is . . . the secretary of Defense.
Precipitously, Hackman commits a murder. Shaken and aghast, he is quite prepared to go to the police, however his right-hand-and-hatchet-man Will Patton, glittery-eyed with zeal, will hear nothing of it. Hackman has been seen by one witness. Patton declares that the witness is the almost-mythical Yuri, a supposedly deeply planted Soviet spy who is to Washington what the Loch Ness monster is to Scotland.
Yuri must be found, and fast, “in the interests of national security.” A stricken Costner, nursing heartbreak of his own, is near the top of the department’s investigating team. But he knows absolutely that the Yuri story is a fake, since it was Costner himself who watched (unrecognized) as Hackman left the crime scene. Now, the story’s great, ironic gimmick: Costner must guide the most sophisticated bloodhounds to . . . his own trail.
In Donaldson’s hands, the action is kept whizzing breathlessly--fast enough that you skim over occasional credibility gaps. By underlining the drama, not the melodrama of his story, Hackman, in a beautiful performance, becomes a conscience-wracked man of depth rather than an omnipotent monster. The liaison-turned-love story between Young and Costner is equally fascinating--and hell’s own sensual. Each of the smaller roles have been painstakingly cast, particularly Patton’s smarmy zealot and George Dzundza, as Costner’s computer-whiz close friend.
In the old pulp days of movie advertising, they would have blared that “No Way Out” was “Torn from today’s headlines!!” In our only slightly less lurid times, we can appreciate it as extraordinary shrewdness--bordering on the prescient--on the part of the film’s producers, Laura Ziskin and Robert Garland, and its executive producer Mace Neufeld, all of whom have clearly had a bead on Washington politics long before America was having the Iran- contra hearings with its breakfast corn flakes.
Garland has a double share of credit, since it is also his superior screenplay and story, adapted from Kenneth Fearing’s slim novel “The Big Clock.” The book has been the basis for one nicely taut movie before, a 1947 version starring Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan and Charles Laughton, which clung closely to the novel.
“No Way Out’s” canny update switches the locale from a Luce-like Manhattan magazine empire to the Washington of pricey executive power breakfasts and the warrens of the Pentagon. It was a smart move: Today’s Washington is probably one of the best settings imaginable for a story of arbitrary, unquestioned power; for beautiful, compliant young women involved with high-ranking politicos and for the plots hatched by fanatically loyal aides.
Besides, the place looks just right. The Pentagon has the faintly tacky look of a 1950s small airport terminal--exactly the unhandsome, downright depressing scenery you could see around the edges of the televised hearings. Production designer Dennis Washington and John Alcott’s great camera eye are major pluses here, along with Neil Travis’s succinct editing. (The film is dedicated to Alcott, a cinematographer of heroic accomplishment--"Barry Lyndon,” “Greystoke” et al.--who died shortly after it was completed.)
But “No Way Out’s” greatest prize is Costner, a leading man at last: fiercely good, intelligent, appreciatively sensual in a performance balanced perfectly between action and introspection. It’s a movie that lends itself to more than one sitting, and when you go back, armed with full understanding, Costner’s work seems even better than the first time, richer, more complex and many layered.