The address changes all the rules.
The White House. A shrine to democracy. A symbol of freedom. A crime scene.
Facts of the Case
After a short prologue, the real plot of the movie starts when a young woman is found dead in a ladies' room at the White House. The victim is Carla Town (Mary Moore), a low-level White House staffer, whom we the audience witnessed having sex in the Oval Office with an unidentified male during the opening credits. Detective Harlan Regis of the DC Police (Wesley Snipes—Demolition Man, White Men Can't Jump, U.S. Marshals) is brought on the scene to investigate. Almost immediately tensions arise between Regis and Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali—A View to a Kill, The Distinguished Gentleman, All the Little Animals), senior Secret Service agent and head of White House security. Spikings objects to the presence of a mere metro cop, and is ready to have him removed from the premises when the President's National Security Advisor, Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda—"M*A*S*H," Betsy's Wedding, Crimes and Misdemeanors) intervenes, forcing Spikings to let him stay on the investigation. Spikings gives in, but continues to make things very difficult for Regis. He tells Regis that certain vital information, such as the list of people in the White House at the time of the murder, is classified. Their turf war escalates when Regis is assigned a Secret Service agent to act as his liaison during the investigation. His new partner is Agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane—A Walk on the Moon, The Perfect Storm, Judge Dredd), a former Olympic gold medallist in sharpshooting.
The murder and subsequent investigation take place against the backdrop of a mounting international crisis. It seems that the North Koreans have captured the crew of an American AWACS aircraft and are holding them hostage. The public and a vocal faction in the Cabinet are calling for immediate, decisive military action to free the prisoners. President Jack Neil (Ronny Cox—Beverly Hills Cop, Deliverance, Total Recall) has thus far refused, preferring to work through diplomatic and economic means. He fears Chinese involvement if the US takes hostile action against North Korea. Now, with a murder in the White House, John McLaughlin, Larry King, and cabinet members alike ridicule him as a man who can't even protect his own house, let alone the country.
The clues and misdirections fly fast and furious, pointing by turns to a White House janitor, the President's son Kyle Neil (Tate Donovan—Disney's Hercules, Holy Matrimony, Ethan Frome), and even the President himself.
Mysterious evidence from a surprising source finally gives Regis and Chance the information they need to catch the real killer. Along with his wisecracking partner, Detective Stengel (Dennis Miller—"Saturday Night Live," "The Dennis Miller Show," Monday Night Football), they sneak into the White House to prevent any further injustice before it is too late.
Let me say at the outset that Wesley Snipes is a much better actor than I had previously given him credit for. His depiction of Detective Regis has depth and humanity. He is helped by a script that gives him more to work with than single-minded devotion to the case. Detective Regis is a history buff who builds complex, detailed dioramas of Civil War battlefields, saying that it is "cheaper than a shrink." He is also preoccupied with the impending loss of his home to a government agency, and he feels a responsibility to his neighbors. Since he is a cop they trust him and think that he can do something to prevent their eviction, and he is determined not to let them down.
Diane Lane also gives an excellent performance as ex-Olympian Chance. She is torn between her sworn duty and institutional loyalty on one hand and her conscience on the other. Lane communicates this ambivalence well.
The supporting cast for the most part turns in solid performances as well. Cox, a character actor who has made a career of playing authority figures, is a natural as the President, although he unfortunately has little screen time. Benzali is also very good in his role as a man who is both smarter and more honorable than we are first led to believe. However, the biggest surprise in the supporting cast is Alda. This was a very interesting, very daring bit of casting. His nice-guy persona and our expectations of our old friend Hawkeye both work to create a nice surprise later on in the story.
The first two thirds of the picture gives us an intriguing, skillfully presented murder mystery. There are many points where it seems too easy, that the clues are coming too fast, until a surprise is revealed and the guessing game begins all over again.
Murder at 1600 is brought to us by Warner Home Video on a two-sided disc. One side contains a beautiful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation while the flip side contains a pan and scan version. Picture quality is for the most part excellent, with an occasional instance of softness. Colors and skin tones are right on the mark.
The audio mix is listed as Dolby Digital 5.1. Surround effects are excellent; my wife and I had to duck at least one shot that traveled directly over our heads. The rear channels are also used heavily for the musical score.
There is a fair selection of extra features on the disc. Included are cast and crew bios as well as two sections of production notes entitled "Behind the Scenes" and "Penetrating the White House." These consist of a few pages of text, but they are nicely laid out and reasonably informative. "Penetrating the White House" is the longer of the two and includes some interesting tidbits about the research that went into the picture. The theatrical trailer is included on both sides of the disc. It is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox on the widescreen side, and pan and scan on the flip side. Interestingly enough it contains a number of scenes that did not make it into the final cut; these scenes seem to make up a majority of the trailer. This is good, because the final product would not have been improved by the addition of any of them. The trailer does a good job of making the movie look interesting without giving anything away. The menus throughout the disc are nicely done, attractive, and easily navigated.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As stated earlier, the first two thirds of the picture gives us an intriguing, skillfully presented murder mystery. After that, however, it goes downhill considerably, degenerating into a foot/helicopter chase, some shootouts, and an excursion through old musty tunnels to infiltrate the White House itself. In this descent to action flick status Murder at 1600 loses a lot of its credibility. There are attempts to silence Regis and Chance by government interference, but in the movie these come across as half-hearted and weak, especially compared to what would be accomplished a year later in Enemy of the State. The White House sets are visually very interesting and convincing, but the scenes between the President and various members of his Cabinet either fall flat or seem overly melodramatic, often at the same time. The climactic scenes of the heroes sneaking into the White House don't work very well either; if getting into the White House was that easy, everyone would do it.
One of the problems in the Cabinet scenes is the casting of Alan Alda. I stated above that he was an interesting, daring bit of casting. Unfortunately, the gamble doesn't always pay off. On balance his performance is very good, but there are a few scenes that stick in my mind that just don't ring true, such as an impassioned speech he makes to the President late in the movie. Dennis Miller adds very little to the picture. This is only partially his fault, as the script gives him very little to work with. In the scenes that do include him he is little more than his smarmy wisecracking self from long-distance commercials.
The only complaint I have with the disc is that the movie starts playing immediately when placed in the player, and this is an insignificant annoyance. On the other hand, this disc has no annoying FBI warning to sit through, so it is pretty much a wash.
Murder at 1600 is not a great film, but it is an enjoyable way to spend an evening. It starts out with a lot of promise but wastes a lot of it by falling into old clichés. It looks and sounds great, and may be worth a rental, especially if you are a fan of the murder mystery genre.
Movie and disc are acquitted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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