The second film this year to implicate the White House in a crime of passion, the political thriller “Murder at 1600” doesn’t offer the elegance and style of Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power,” but it’s a trashy movie that’s intermittently intriguing and enjoyable on its own terms. Improbable as its narrative is, with particularly preposterous plotting in the last reel, pic is a shrewdly packaged entertainment, cashing in on public curiosity — and increasing cynicism — about secret operations in the fortress of American power. Toplined by Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane, Warner’s spring release is a serviceable suspenser that will achieve mid-range success at home, with stronger outlook internationally and on video.
As written by Wayne Beach and David Hodgin, “Murder at 1600” is a coldly calculated manipulation that tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, the script pushes viewers’ buttons and feeds a sense of paranoia by piling up details that incriminate the president, his family and top officers in sleazy conduct and unethical maneuvering. But then the film finds ways to redeem the sanctity of the White House as an institution and restore faith in the decency of its occupants.
When first seen, Washington, D.C., homicide detective Harlan Regis (Snipes) prevents a government official from shooting himself in the midst of a busy intersection. Having served in the capital for years, Regis is a seasoned pro who’s jaded and unfazed — that is, until he’s called to investigate the murder of Carla Town (Mary Moore), a young, beautiful secretary whose body is found by a housekeeper in a White House bathroom.
Regis is reluctantly assisted by a laconic Secret Service agent, Nina Chance (Lane), who’s been ordered by her supervisor, the rigid and ultra-tough Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali), to wrap the case as quickly and quietly as possible. It becomes clear right away that Regis is persona non grata, which of course only whets his appetite to delve deeper into the case. Since numerous policing agencies (CIA, Secret Service, Capitol Hill police, park police) are involved, there’s also the question of which bureau has the jurisdiction to conduct the inquiry.
Unlike “Absolute Power,” which used the White House mostly as background, the murder mystery in this picture unfolds in the midst of a global political crisis that sharply divides the administration. President Jack Neil (Ronny Cox) is hesitant to take aggressive action against North Korea, which holds hostage some American soldiers, even though he’s put under tremendous pressure not only from his right-wing advisers but from China, which has its own agenda.
At first, all the clues implicate the president’s son, Kyle (Tate Donovan), who slept with Carla just minutes before she was killed. Kyle is a womanizer, with a record of beatings and abuse. Some evidence also suggests that Carla was going to meet a New York editor to discuss the publication of a scandalous book about Capitol Hill that some top officials wished to suppress.
Soon Regis realizes that the situation is far more complex, dangerous and corrupt than he could have imagined in his wildest dreams, which gradually pulls him out of his shell. Following generic conventions, in the second reel Regis and Chance, who plays a crucial part in the puzzle, find themselves alone in a desperate struggle to stop the killer from carrying out a creepy scheme that will affect the entire country — and globe — if it succeeds.
What makes the film involving and enjoyable in its first hour is a thick, multilayered plot, a rare sight in mainstream movies nowadays. Script expertly constructs rich individual histories for each of its dozen characters. Chance, for example, is a gold medal-winning sharpshooter, a Secret Service agent who takes pride in her abilities and stands by her personal code, only to realize that it might be necessary to betray the sacred oath.
Nonetheless, the last act turns the yarn from a thriller into a routine actioner, and Regis and Chance’s penetration into the White House is wildly implausible. And as emotionally satisfying as the denouement is, with the president finally taking action, it violates the little credibility the film has worked so hard to establish.
Both smart and physical, Snipes lends a sarcastic edge to his character, whose one-liners provide useful comic relief. Snipes enjoys good chemistry with the attractive Lane, who may develop into a major action heroine based on her work here.
Pic is also sprinkled with standout character performances from Dennis Millerm as Regis’ bright and knowing partner; Benzali, as the protective head of the security forces; and Alan Alda, in one of his more outrageous roles, as the national security adviser and close friend of the president.
Technical credits are functional, particularly Nelson Coates’ production design and Dan Yarhi’s art direction. Viewers will get a kick out of seeing facsimiles of the physical plant and detailed interior of the world’s most famous mansion. In what seems to be an homage to Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo” (and other Hitchcock movies), Christopher Young’s ominous music is appropriately bouncy, if sometimes overwhelming.