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Laura Bush and the Secret Service agent



In these politically charged times, any movie showing a fictional President of the United States inspires some sort of contemporary connection, which usually translates into the blowhards of the right-wing media spouting their customary vitriol. Because Independence Day, Air Force One, and The American President, for example, depicted a president in a positive light during the Clinton years, the whiners complained about the "Hollywood elite" supporting a favorite; they failed to mention Primary Colors or Wag the Dog (a much more relevant film for this presidency, by the way), which showed a different sort of politics and personality. Now, deep into the second term of a mendacious, cowardly, and failed administration, the conservatives surely cannot regard The Sentinel as anything other than a film about the present occupant of the White House, another in an increasingly populous subgenre, the presidential thriller.

Based upon the now familiar situation of a plot to assassinate the president, The Sentinel focuses on a Secret Service agent, Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), who finds himself framed on a charge of treason. Although brave and dedicated --- he took a bullet for Ronald Reagan --- and considered one of the top men in the service, Garrison inexplicably has never advanced in his career. That failure provides part of the evidence for the charge against him, leveled by his own colleagues, in particular a former friend, David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), who also suspects Garrison of an affair with his wife.

Despite the initial premise of a potential assassination, the movie concentrates its real attention on the agent's plight, the familiar situation of a man on the run from one group (his colleagues) and pursuing another (the plotters who work against both him and the president). One of the means by which the unknown conspirators entangle Garrison in their scheme involves blackmail --- they send him pictures showing his intimacy with the first lady (Kim Basinger). (Considering the oleaginous ministrations of the media to Laura Bush, a possible love affair involving the president's wife and a Secret Service agent seems both too delicious and too threatening for the right wing to drool over).

In addition to the various personal complications, which the script rather quickly and superficially skips through, another character clutters up the plot. A rookie agent, Jill Marin (Eva Longoria), must deal with conflicting loyalties. Although trained by Garrison, she works directly under Breckinridge, which means that even when ordered by her boss, she understandably hesitates to shoot her former mentor. Her character apparently exists mainly to underline the animosity between the two men, and perhaps to showcase a currently popular television performer, but otherwise adds little intrinsic interest to the story.

The Sentinel works best when it avoids those personal matters and concentrates instead on the professional aspects of Garrison's work. The normal business of the Secret Service, its daily procedures, the nuts and bolts of its work, its techniques of investigation and protection provide sufficient entertainment and information to balance the often shallow and hasty attempts at a couple of back stories. Those extraneous complications, in fact, tend to confuse and obscure both the plot of flight and pursuit and the identities of the real conspirators and the real traitor.

The filming works consistently to match the rapid and constantly shifting movement of the action --- the movie often seems to consist entirely of plot --- showing the characters from numerous points of view and through a variety of lenses. Director Clark Johnson employs flashbacks in varying color schemes, including the smeary primary colors of deteriorated film stock, the fuzzy images of television screens, and grainy black and white videotape from surveillance cameras, underlining plot points in slow motion and stop motion.

Despite some exaggerations, the picture depends upon the entirely recognizable background of contemporary history. No American needs reminding of the possibility of presidential assassination, and the several instances of treason in the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI demonstrate that no government agency, whatever the training and commitment of its people, enjoys any special immunity from corruption. And of course, The Sentinel also speculates thoughtfully about what Laura Bush may really be doing when her husband is choking on his pretzels or falling off his bicycle.

The Sentinel (PG-13), directed by Clark Johnson, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Eastview 13, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown, and Webster 12.

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