Proof of Life

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PROOF OF LIFE

5/10

US 2000
director : Taylor Hackford
script : Tony Gilroy (inspired by an article by William Prochnau, and the book
Long March to Freedom by Thomas Hargrove)
cinematography : Slawomir Idziak
editing : John Smith, Sheldon Kahn
stars : Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse
135 minutes

“When people go see this movie, they won’t understand that we were in a war,and this could have been a disaster. We could have been ambushed and defeated.We weren’t.”
Taylor Hackford

Proof of Life is a very old story, off screen as well as on. The plot is a Hollywood staple – action director Sam Fuller considered it old-fashioned as long ago as 1954 when he pitched it to Darryl Zanuck under the title Tigrero! The movie was, famously, never made – there was even a documentary called Tigrero – A Movie That Was Never Made – but Fuller intended to cast Ava Gardner as an American, visiting the Amazonian jungle with her ineffectual husband, Tyrone Power. When Power is taken prisoner by hostile natives, the desperate Gardner hires no-nonsense tough guy John Wayne, who has first-hand knowledge of the area, to track Power down and spring him from captivity. This being Hollywood, matters are complicated when Gardner and Wayne start falling in love.

This time it’s Ryan, Morse and Crowe as Alice Bowman, her husband Peter, and kidnap-negotiation expert Terry Thorne, and although Proof of Life strains for topicality with its references to Chechnya, Somalia, Bosnia, etc., it’s still the same old tale. Not quite as old, however, as the behind-the-scenes problems that made Proof such a troubled project from start to finish, as chronicled by screenwriter Prochnau’s fascinating on-set diary, extracted in Premiere magazine, and available from mightywords.com:

‘The studio was nervous as hell about Ecuador. But Hackford was bullheaded, determined to the point of obsession to film in the same mountains and jungle where the reality takes place. He would push his people to the far limits of their talents and endurance, in equatorial sleet blizzards at over 14,000 feet and in cloud-forest hillsides, where the rain began like clockwork shortly after noon, turning the set into a downhill slalom of putrid mud. Roads washed out. Clouds shrouded vistas. The political climate worsened, and tear gas used against civil protests wafted onto sets. The big, visible threats – kidnapping attempts, volcanoes, violence – never went away’
Prochnau, Premiere Dec 2000, pp52-4

It’s the classic ‘difficult’ shoot – over schedule, over budget, with an increasingly desperate director fighting against the elements, the fates, the movie gods, to get his ‘vision’ onto celluloid in time for the all-important Christmas release. Think Francis Coppola on Apocalypse Now, or, from the world of the arthouse, Fitzcarraldo‘s Werner Herzog, his travails and tantrums recorded in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams. Proof of Life remains most famous for the headlines generated by Ryan leaving long-time husband Dennis Quaid for co-star Crowe in the middle of the shoot. And then, when the film was released to disappointing box-office returns, Hackford and Crowe conducted a very public war of words over who should shoulder the ultimate responsibility.

If this was, indeed, Hackford’s “war”, the released cut of Proof of Life suggests he didn’t win it – the movie seems to have gotten away from the director, and his attempts to salvage matters in the cutting room are only partially, choppily successful. It takes forever to get going, then laboriously alternates between Morse’s hardships in captivity and Crowe’s patient games of brinkmanship with his abductors. Back-story involving Morse’s oil-corporation employers, is clumsily garbled, while Pamela Reed is wasted in the promising role of Janis, Peter’s sister. It was clever of Hackford to (presumably) encourage Reed not to be cowed by sharing scenes with the movie’s megastar Ryan, just as the no-nonsense Janis sees no need to defer to the relatively dizty Alice – one recalls similarly strong females in Dolores Claiborne, Hackford’s most satisfying film. But Janis is packed off back to America halfway through, blanding out the movie’s texture just when it needed pepping up.

Luckily, as in the story, Crowe steps in to saves the day almost single-handedly. It’s no coincidence he’s at the centre of all cinematographer Idziak’s most striking compositions – Crowe is an unusually authentic masculine presence for such a big-budget movie, but he’s also got the acting chops to pull off the quieter scenes. His sense of humour and intelligence add depths the script probably doesn’t really deserve – he manages to make the Casablanca-style finale genuinely poignant, when in retrospect it’s really just a melodramatic contrivance.

He also seems to have played a crucial role off-screen:

‘Crowe infused new energy and propped up morale. The crew loved him. He rented a theater and invited them to a private Quito premiere of Gladiator. Afterward, he kept the Quito Sports Bar open until 4 a.m., picking up the tab for the food, the booze – and the damage. On the set, he was all business when he needed to be; all jokes and one-liners when he didn’t.
Premiere,
p102

Proof of Life was on general release throughout Oscar voting time, and its lack of box-office muscle was initially regarded as a handicap to Crowe’s chances of winning the Best Actor award for Gladiator – not to mention that ill-tempered spat with Hackford. But in retrospect, perhaps the troubled production ended up helping the Kiwi star -word travels fast in the movie community, and a lot of people worked on Proof, just as a lot of people read Premiere magazine.

11th April, 2001