Who knew that Steven Spielberg, one of the most prodigiously talented pure filmmakers working today, harbored a secret desire to be Jerry Bruckheimer. Of course, Spielberg's producing career nearly equals Bruckheimer in terms of longevity and profitability. But while many of his exec-producer credits have been on movies — like Gremlins, Back to the Future, or Men in Black — that play with Spielbergian themes and concepts while training new, fairly idiosyncratic studio directors like Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis, his last few big producing credits have been on neo-Bruckheimer joints like Transformers and now Eagle Eye. (Meanwhile, Bruckheimer has, with the Pirates and National Treasure franchises, branched out into the kind of family-friendly fantasy that Spielberg practically owned in the eighties.)
Eagle Eye even began as an idea of Spielberg's, which he handed off to a gaggle of new-ish screenwriters. It's not exactly clear what Spielberg contributed, specifically — the log-line of Shia LaBeouf's everydude getting sucked into a conspiracy via an all-seeing, unknown hack-everything entity? or a more specific, spoiler-y aspect of the movie's plot? or just a some vague gesturing toward a thriller about, like, technology that totally spies on us, and stuff?
Whatever his initial input, I have faith that Spielberg himself could've spun this stuff, even the most preposterous turns, into something taut and flowing, if he felt like directing it himself. Understandably, he didn't, and while actual director DJ Caruso had some fun knocking off Hitchcock with LaBeouf in last year's Disturbia, he has his sights set on Tony Scott territory with Eagle Eye, racing by North by Northwest country in a souped-up robo-car leaving approximately fifty destroyed cop cars and a near-total lack of suspense in its wake.
With its fast cuts, interesting slumming actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson), and superficial-at-best topicality, Eagle Eye isn't a bad approximation of the Bruckheimer aesthetic; some of it is enjoyably slick and ridiculous, Enemy of the State style. But Spielberg and company don't quite have Bruckheimer's sense of trash; they clutter the story with boilerplate character development that's just as facile as the car chases and impossible technology. The more outwardly junky bits, then, jut out gracelessly, a quieter version of the way Michael Bay movies tend to smash three or four different tones together (which is why a case could be made — not by me, but by someone — that Transformers is his best work. Maybe Spielberg is beating Bruckheimer at his own game).
Judging by box-office returns for Eagle Eye as they relate to other quasi-topical thrillers like The Kingdom, moviegoers prefer the lightest, shiniest of glosses to anything that actually reminds them of anything apart from other movies. I'm all for allegory, but movies like Eagle Eye take the worst of both worlds, positioning themselves as current without ever actually mentioning anything important by name.
The Lucky Ones, the war dramedy I snuck into after Eagle Eye, actually doesn't ever say "Iraq" out loud either, although the references to "over there" are so blatant that the lack of the word itself comes off as superstition, not naturalism. Speaking of naturalism: it's a good idea. But it's probably not what you should be getting from Neil Burger, writer-director of The Illusionist. That movie's strengths lied in its pulpy storytelling, an old-fashioned theatricality that, unfortunately, lingers in a lot of scenes in The Lucky Ones. The film is so bursting with theatricality that it can't help but laying a titular line on us within the first ten or fifteen minutes.
Those lucky ones are three soldiers on leave from Iraq: Michael Pena and Rachel McAdams are back in the states for thirty days, while Tim Robbins has just gotten out for good. It's the Robbins storyline, in which he immediately visits the wife who he doesn't seem to have realized is estranged and has to grapple with how to pay for his son's Stanford tuition (the wife seems estranged from the kid, too; he's got a partial scholarship yet no one discusses loans), that goes so poorly, so quickly. A soldier returning to his family and finding himself displaced or out of the loop is a rich subject, but it's handled with such stilted capital-duh Drama here that Robbins may as well have walked into his house straight from a movie screen.
McAdams, though, has some similar scenes that play much better. Her naÃ¯ve soldier is out to meet the family of her army boyfriend, killed in combat, and the screenplay's little reversals of supposed expectations, while not much more surprising than the rest of the film's, actually pay off and seem sweet, sad, and genuine. Her subplot hints at the low-key, affecting movie that could've been, and also sort of illustrate while it's not worth hating The Lucky Ones, it's really just a low-rent Stop-Loss, which wasn't so fantastic itself. Throughout The Lucky Ones, and Stop-Loss, and In the Valley of Elah, vivid feelings come through, usually via committed performances. But the films themselves don't work down to the bone. The issue-mongering, while more sincere, doesn't go much deeper than Eagle Eye's exploration of paranoia, or technology run amok, or identity theft, or whatever the hell they probably claim that movie is about in the press notes. The warmth and humor of The Lucky Ones is admirable, but it has the strength and permanence of a makeshift campfire; Eagle Eye, meanwhile, is a firecracker, cheap but loud.