FILM / Morality-bites without teeth: Accidental Hero, Body of Evidence and Dust Devil

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The Independent Culture
HARD-BITTEN yet soft-centred television reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis) is making her acceptance speech for the Silver Mike Award, made for devotion to truth in journalism. She produces an onion and starts whittling away at it, to illustrate the journalist's necessary task of digging beneath appearances, in search of a core that never shows up. Soon her face is awash with tears, onion tears, yes, but also unquestionably the tears of conscience, as she articulates her despair about human nature, her longing for a story that is not, ultimately, about weakness.

The elusiveness of onion anatomy has a long history as a model for human personality (famously in Peer Gynt) but this scene would make more sense, in the context of Stephen Frears' new film Accidental Hero (15), if Gale's investigative knife laid bare a tiny spine within the onion, a hidden vertebrate structure organising those crisp, eye-pricking layers.

Can a bad person perform a good action? Don't be in too much of a hurry to answer. If you say yes, you're in deep paradox territory, but if you say no, you're locked into a circular argument, whereby actions are good because good people perform them - in which case, what makes the people good? But don't worry, Accidental Hero doesn't so much explore its premises as apologise for them. The film deals, on its chosen level of comedy-drama, not with moral dilemmas but with morality-bites, as if each individual page of the script was obliged by some central authority to resolve all the issues it raises.

On her way back from the Silver Mike awards, Gale is one of 50-odd people to be involved in a plane crash. A petty criminal called Bernie Laplante (Dustin Hoffman) happens to be in the vicinity - in fact his subsequent description of the incident, that a plane landed on his head, is for him an unusually close approximation to the truth. Frears stages the crash with economical humour. The disaster is reflected in Bernie's face and windscreen as a dim fiery falling, and conveyed explicitly only on the soundtrack - the long terrible grind of metal, the paradoxical tinkling silence of aftermath. Then Frears cuts to Bernie's point of view, and a steaming wall of modern sculpture that is so much closer to the camera than expected that it functions as the punchline of a visual joke.

Grumbling the whole while, Bernie saves lives, first by opening a jammed door and then by going inside the smoking fuselage to pull people out. These acts of begrudging virtue, performed with an air of 'okay, okay' as if the strongest motive for answering a plea for help was to make someone shut up, would be truly comic if the screenwriter hadn't arranged for a more orthodox motive to be waiting in the wings. A boy asks Bernie to save his dad, and it just so happens that Bernie has a feeling of failure in his relationship with his own son, a wound that heroism can stanch. The film can't wait to shut off the subversive possibilities of the situation it has so carefully contrived.

Bernie, in accordance with his lifelong principle of not getting involved, makes himself scarce after the rescue - though again, there is a noble motivation. He thought he hadn't saved the boy's father (in fact there were no fatalities) and couldn't face the boy. When the media - Gale, inevitably, in the vanguard - become obsessed with the 'angel' who saved lives then disappeared, another man claims the attention and the reward: John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a thoroughly good guy who happens not to have done this particular good thing, but whose appropriation of it is his only moment of weakness.

Hoffman's performance is one of subdued ratty energy, a low-key re- tread of his Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Sometimes he indulges in fussiness, even so, as when he changes hands on the instrument while on the phone to his beloved son, in fact changes ears - as if a twitchy ambidextrousness was the logical expression of a nature so deeply divided between virtue and dishonesty. A moment's experiment with a receiver is enough to show up the inauthenticity of the gesture.

Perhaps Hoffman is inhibited by the script's implacable progress towards the conclusion that it has already demonstrated in a scene where the false saviour starts working miracles in his own right, by bringing a comatose child back to consciousness: that both men are heroes. In fact, we're all heroes if you catch us at the right moment.

Every now and then the script flickers into satirical life, as when Bubber is handed a doll of himself to sign, or when the plane crash is restaged for television ('No actors] No music] No make-up]'), but the flickers are soon stamped out. David Webb Peoples, the writer, has an altogether incongruous curriculum vitae - Blade Runner, Unforgiven and now this. A cold futuristic fantasy, a troubled revisionist western, and now a semi-satire that falls over itself to restore the status quo. It would take a Preston Sturges to take comic risks with the theme of the unworthy hero (Hail the Conquering Hero, in fact, is the classic example), and Peoples has a way to go.

It is Stephen Frears' involvement, though, that is the most mysterious thing about Accidental Hero. Why, after The Grifters, one of the films with the lowest feel-good quotients in recent times, would he be drawn to such a formulaic project? There are satisfying touches here and there, like the Probation Officers Do It With Conviction bumper sticker in shot when Bernie tries to sell himself as a decent citizen and family role model, or the graffito on the wall behind him in prison: 'How come I am here? How come Madonna is not my gurlfriend?'

Bubber's guilty conscience, in particular, is well conveyed by the soundtrack, a waiter's efficient shaking out of a starched napkin sounding to him like a gunshot, the closing of a sound-stage door, when he knows he is about to be exposed, made to clunk like an airplane's. But there is no fresh wind blowing through the genre assumptions. All the characters are wafted upwards by the familiar Hollywood thermal of redeeming self-acceptance.