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Arlington Road

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 9 July 1999

  Directed by Mark Pellington.

Starring Jeff Bridges,
Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack,
Hope Davis, Spencer Treat Clark,
Mason Gamble, and Robert Gossett.

Written by Ehren Kruger.

In Arlington Road, the first major Hollywood film to deal with the current rise in domestic terrorism, Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a history professor who teaches a course on terrorism at George Washington University, is driving home one day to his house in an upper-middle-class suburb -- all peaked roofs and cupolas -- on the Virginia side of the Potomac, when he sees a young boy, walking down the middle of the street, in shock, slowly bleeding to death. After taking him to the hospital, he's greeted by the boy's parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). As it turns out, they live just across the street from each him; as Michael's son starts playing regularly with theirs, the adults soon become friends, as well, with indoor dinners and cookouts in the backyard.

But something about the Langs' explanation for their son's injury doesn't quite gel with Michael, nor do other things that he begins seeing happening around them, as well. Michael lost his wife, a Federal agent, during a botched Ruby Ridge-like operation, and his son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), has grown diffident towards him and towards the perfectly nice woman, Brooke (Hope Davis), whom Michael has started seeing. Are Michael's increasing feelings of suspicion towards the Langs rooted in something real, or are they coming from his resentment over seeing his son transferring his affections towards the more traditionally paternalistic Oliver?

Oliver turns out to be living under an alias, and he indeed has a past, one that includes a Federal offense involving explosives and for which he served time. Michael is shown becoming alternately argumentative and underhanded. Why doesn't he just walk across the street and tell Oliver that he has trouble being friends with someone who is not living under his real name? Instead, it is Oliver who confronts Michael, telling him that, "if you have issues with me," he could at least come to him directly. Jeff Bridges' Michael is left with an almost drunken look on his face that suggests he's in a stupor confounded out of confusion, nervous fatigue, and incredulity.

For a while, it looks as if Arlington Road might not be as square as we might expect it to be. However, whatever mystery might have been generated over whether the Langs are subversives or not is squelched by their being presented as strange and unreal right from the start. Tim Robbins portrays Oliver with flat-cut hair that overemphasizes his wide brow, and with the hulking, glassy-eyed, slightly distracted appearance of someone who is just waiting to go over the edge. Along with his son, he has two daughters who scowl at the camera with the spooky, reproachful look of twins in a Diane Arbus photograph. Joan Cusack, on the other hand, gives her character, a woman who lives behind a veneer of forced pleasantries and bland politeness, just the right tone of someone struggling to maintain perfection which, in retrospect, seems almost poignant.

What is Oliver's agenda? What, if any, group is he aligned with, and what are their objections? The filmmakers are utterly ambiguous on this point. The subversives depicted in the film are simply an amorphous "them" out there, wreaking havoc, not all that unlike the great, big amorphous "them" in authority who are supposed to be responsible for everything that's gone wrong with the country. But what does Oliver consider to be "wrong?" Only that those in power must be made to "pay" for what they've done. Oliver simply seems like he's anti-authoritarian, but he never offers any specifics that would justify why he would turn into a bomb-thrower who would willingly kill innocent people to make a point.

The film might have worked if it had shown Michael, obsessed to the point where he could no longer bear to stand by while his neighbor plots mass murder, trying to stop Oliver by resorting to the same renegade tactics that we've seen him earlier deploring in his class, objectifying how widespread the malaise of violence has become. Instead, the filmmakers resort to having Jeff Bridges madly hurtling himself, wide eyed, through one scene after another (something I'd hoped I'd never have to see him do again after his misadventures in Blown Away) while Robbins is reduced to the level of a sibilant, hissing devil -- all stuff that we've seen a thousand times before in a thousand other bad movies -- and a crucial plot turn that requires a great, nay, tremendous leap of faith on the part of the audience.

I'll give the filmmakers credit for opting for a downbeat ending, one that acknowledges that there's no easy solution to the social problems that it addresses. But I wonder if the filmmakers fully understand what they're dealing with. Michael is shown telling his class that domestic terrorism is a mystifying "Resistance" movement that has sprung forth during our "age of prosperity," and that the public, unable to deal with the idea of organized anarchy, prefer to reduce the problem to that of one lone man, acting on his own. I don't think anybody believes that Timothy McVeigh, or Lee Harvey Oswald, for that matter, acted alone. And grass-roots terrorism isn't in response to "prosperity," it's a response from people who feel powerless. Unemployment is down, but thousands of homeless people have long since dropped out of the percentile. The agricultural communities in the Midwest have never fully recovered from the widespread bankruptcies and foreclosures of the Eighties, during which the Reagan administration stood by and did nothing. Most couples I know of have to work two jobs in order to support their families, while still remembering a time when they only had one parent who was working. And politicians on Capitol Hill are still, 18 years after the snowball fight first got started, playing right down along Party lines, with little or no apparent concern for the public well-being. People become so disillusioned and apathetic towards the voting process that they stop exercising the right to do so. We could do with a dynamite film on domestic terrorism which would be thrilling and yet wake-up the audience a bit. Arlington Road is not only ambiguous, it's ultimately so afraid of pushing anyone's hot button that it ends up rendering itself totally ineffective on any level.

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