Monday, August 9, 2010

Film on TV: Rubicon

You’re all alone on a rainy Tuesday night in NYC. It’s your birthday, but you’d forgotten that until your secretary reminded you that morning at work. She wanted to take you out to lunch. She probably wants more than lunch. But you’re too swamped in your secretive government work identifying and sorting through information to take time off for lunch. And you’re still too hung up on your dead wife and daughter to take time off for her.

So you’re alone on your birthday on a rainy New York night, isolated and removed from the city teeming around you, the places, people and things you study everyday from afar. But then you get a call from your father-in-law / super-secretive government boss, the closest thing you have to family in your life. He’s left a motorcycle for you, parked outside your apartment. He tells you he wants you to get on that motorcycle and fly away from here. Start over someplace new. He wants you to start LIVING. But you have no idea what that means...

A week later your father-in-law is dead, you’re struggling as the new boss and that motorcycle he left you is parked in your living room, still waiting for you to live. You start examining the machine, find a strip of tape running the length of the banana seat. You pick at it and find that you can easily peel it off, so you do. And on the inside of that tape you find a series of mysterious codes. Numbers and patterns and mysteries...

And on the seat that tape was holding together, you find a hole. Curious by nature, you reach into that hole, just in case. There’s something in there. Something cold and hard. You pull your hand out, and with it – a gun.

It’s time to start living.

Rubicon is a slow boil, a throwback to 70s paranoia thrillers like Klute (1971), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976). It’s full of spies and tails and big government conspiracies. It lurks and heaves from the shadows, relaying information in the form of puzzle pieces, little tidbits and details for us to decipher, or dots for us to connect. And like any great conspiracy it approaches its audience and its hero exactly the same way – as a respectable, intelligent but susceptible force, capable of either putting everything together, or being manipulated, relegated and tossed aside along the way.

James Badge Dale plays the hero, Will, as a slightly more downtrodden iteration of his war-torn character in The Pacific (2010). He’s a charming and dedicated whiz, uncomfortable in the power game even as he aspires to navigate it. We know he’s a widower, a loner and a generally good guy. We know he’s an obsessive and he like to end his days with beer. But beyond that we know very little about Will. And that’s par for the course.

Rubicon is filled with characters that, over the course of three episodes, we’ve only scarcely begun to get a handle on. The events in the opening few paragraphs were spread out over three hours, when they easily could have taken place entirely in the pilot episode. Rubicon is paced for a marathon, and a deliberate one at that. Like its AMC cohort Mad Men, it rebels against television norms, the reliance on overexplanation, on “big bang” stories and characture identifications. It defines itself as atmospheric and challenging. It dares to be different. And like Mad Men, it’s all the better for it.

Unlike Mad Men however, Rubicon can’t ever fallback on Americana or décor. Heritage is just as present, but in genre form. As much as Rubicon is a throwback, its whimsicality is obscured by the darkness of the material it’s recreating. There’s no glitz or glamour here. There is only subtlety, accentuated with small bursts of anxiety or thrills. Just enough to keep us locked in and yearning for more.

Yes Rubicon is slow, but it is also wracked with anticipation. And that’s extremely hard to pull off. It doles out its mystery well, and on every possible front. But most importantly, it underplays the “shiny cool” aspect of typical government/spy shows and movies. The instant gratification immediacy of 24 or the dress-to-impress technical wizardry of Hollywood feel light years away from these plain and basic streets, these bookshelf-lined offices cluttered with scrap paper and pencils. The plain clothed everymen cracking codes and drinking coffee. I don’t think I’ve even seen a computer yet. And that’s not just earthy; that’s refreshing.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Awesome review, this is a quality show for sure.


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