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Hard Service

David Mamet stumbles with the political thriller “Spartan.”

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“Spartan” opens with an obligatory thriller-genre training sequence wherein special-ops conscript Curtis chases an agent played by Tia Texada through a wooded area, while their leader Scott (Kilmer) oversees the exercise. The hackneyed false start gives way to hard-edged suspense when the president’s daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell) is kidnapped from a college dorm in Boston because her guard abandoned his post in favor of protecting the president during an adulterous visit to his mistress.

Agent Scott tracks down the girl’s abduction to a local nightclub where young women are procured for older clientele. Back-alley punches are thrown and Scott and his partner are soon killing would-be suspects before they can admit their association to the girl’s capture. Television news reports interrupt the investigation with information that Laura Newton’s corpse has been found with her college professor in ocean waters, and sets up the central governmental espionage ploy of the movie. The president sacrifices his daughter to suppress the truth of his adultery and insure himself a shot at the next election by using the media to spread lies about her death.

“Spartan” suffers from a fundamental problem similar to Mamet’s script for “Wag the Dog.” It’s not enough to present a questioning attack on the American media for conspiring with the U.S. government to spread lies to the public. We need to see action being taken to hold factions of the government and the media accountable. If Mamet had shown the duplicity exploded in the media to a gathering throng of citizens demanding public trials, then the movie would have had somewhere to go. But the only narrative meat that Mamet puts on his script’s bones is a series of transparent vignettes that serve as thankless subplots.

For example, an eccentric female Secret Service agent explains to Scott that she raised the president’s daughter like her own and gives him a set of photo-booth pictures of herself with a young Laura Newton. The scene demands a jarring sentimental leap of faith from the audience with no support from a wretched performance by the character actress in the role. In another scene, Scott goes through a drawn-out and violent rigmarole to intimidate a foreign convict who will lead him to where Laura Newton is being held hostage in Dubai. The body count is high but no one seems to mind.

Mamet makes a tremendous error in not introducing the girl around whom the plot revolves until the end of the movie. By the time we meet Laura Newton, she is a shell of a human being sustained by her craving for cigarettes. Extinct from her character is the necessary intelligence that we expect from a college-aged child of an American president. The girl’s rescue is instantaneously co-opted by politicians on television patronizing Laura Newton as the “soul” of the country. Clearly here is an example of saving one person at the cost of everyone else. In the beginning of the story, a president we don’t see (and therefore can’t analyze) sacrifices his daughter to remain in power; in the end, politicians disguise their lies in the light of the girl’s rescue to declare their connection to the sum and substance of the country. Both acts are reprehensible and yet neither is punished. When do public trials begin? ** S

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