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  • Benjamin May

The Osterman Weekend (1983) Review

John Tanner is a controversial journalist who makes it his business to hold truth to power on his television show, exposing government corruption wherever and whenever he can. As he is preparing for a weekend get together with three of his closest friends at his lavish California estate, Tanner is contacted by a CIA agent named Laurence Fassett. It transpires that Fassett and the agency believe Tanner's friends are part of a Soviet spy network, and they think he can get them to defect. As the weekend rolls on, suspicions become raised on all sides, and- as the lines between truth, fiction, loyalty and betrayal are irrevocably blurred- the question arises: just who is manipulating whom?

Directed by Sam Peckinpah and based on Robert Ludlum's novel of the same name, 'The Osterman Weekend' is a well-acted thriller that rises above its source material, though seems a sad swansong for such a visionary director. Screenwriters Ian Masters and Alan Sharp have injected some much-needed energy and cohesion into Ludlum's convoluted tale, transforming it into a parable about the power of television as a tool of propaganda, instead of the weak meditation on revenge and cold-war paranoia that it originally was.

Unlike in the book, Masters and Sharp use 'The Osterman Weekend' to explore how the media shapes narratives, changes meanings and influences opinions through editing and censorship. Through Tanner's program and the machinations of the CIA, they examine the idea that belief is generated through television- in other words, if people see it on TV, they believe it. While not a particularly profound or original notion, it lends the narrative more weight, as well as providing additional dramatic tension throughout.

This is not to say that 'The Osterman Weekend' should be lauded as a masterpiece, only that it asks more interesting questions than Ludlum's novel, and has a clearer message at its center. Masters and Sharp have not made Ludlum's awkward dialogue any more eloquent, nor has the inclusion of a new character and a new ending helped matters any. The story is still inherently flawed, and bad post-production and editing without Peckinpah's involvement means the finished product is a tad schizophrenic in terms of tone and content- though it is still inarguably easier to follow and more assured than its source material.

'The Osterman Weekend' reunites Peckinpah with cinematographer John Coquillon, whose talents the director had utilized for 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid' and 'Straw Dogs'. Coquillon does fine work that fits well within Peckinpah's oeuvre, featuring much of the director's trademark slow-motion violence. By incorporating CCTV footage from multiple monitors, Coquillon shows us different perspectives on events throughout, bolstering Tanner's paranoia and uncertainty about the reality of his situation. Odd angles and lighting are used to heighten this paranoia, though the overall visual aesthetic is one far less stylized than Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch', or Coquillon's work on 'Witchfinder General,' adding a sense of authenticity to proceedings.

Also contributing to the sense of paranoia and authenticity are the cast, many of whom deliver nuanced performances that keep audiences unsure of their motivations and loyalties. Rutger Hauer is charismatic and commanding as Tanner, showing a side of his personality he had not yet done through his villainous roles in Hollywood films. Craig T. Nelson does sterling work as Osterman, making him charming, yet morally mysterious. Dennis Hopper fades into the background somewhat, though has some good scenes with Helen Shaver, who is consistently excellent as his drugged-out wife, displaying much emotional perspicuity.

In his case, the great Burt Lancaster seems bored as the director of the CIA, apparently disliking Peckinpah's interpretation of the character and direction. For their parts, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster and Cassie Yates are competent but generally underused. The real stand-out is John Hurt, who is spellbinding as Fassett, all but stealing the picture. Convincing, conniving and complex, Hurt transforms the one-note caricature of Ludlum's book into the most interesting character in the film, and it's a joy any time he's on screen.

Sam Peckinpah's last film, 'The Osterman Weekend' is far from his best work. Though it is well acted and features fine cinematography, the story leaves a lot to be desired, and post-production work without the involvement of the director leaves the finished product lacking consistency and coherence. Though its indictment of television as a mode of propaganda is still timely, it is not a particularly subtle or profound work in that regard. To conclude, though it has its moments, Bloody Sam deserved a better last hurrah than this.


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