‘The truth is just a lie that hasn’t been found out…’ is the kind of line that looks decidedly different in 2020 than in 1983; the era of fake news is presently obscuring the ongoing threads of agreed history or justice. The commentary comes from Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt), who has been engaged in some elaborate spy-master games, but the nature of these games didn’t engage critics and audiences back in 1983. Now, it’s possible to see The Osterman Weekend as a misunderstood classic; it’s certainly got a remarkable array of talent on show, and a prescient surveillance/conspiracy theme.
This was Sam Peckinpah’s last film, and not for the first time in his career, he managed to get fired from his own film. The issues seem to have pertained to the opening sequence, a seemingly gratuitous sex and murder scene that backers wanted cut, but Peckinpah fought to keep. It shows Fassett in bed with a woman; when he gets up for a cold shower, she’s murdered. But as many critics have noticed, the cc-tv footage we’re watching clearly comes from a number of different cameras and bears evidence of post-production edits; it positively invites the audience to speculate as to how genuine the footage is, and as to Fassett’s complicity in the killing.
Fassett is used by General Haig-style US government official Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster, oozing gravitas) to bring in a pawn in the form of Mike Wallace-type tv reporter John Tanner, played by Rutger Hauer in full alpha-male mode. As a unwilling CIA operative, Tanner is to host a weekend get-together for a number of friends, one of whom may well be affiliated with the KGB. Tanner is unwilling, but Fassett shows him video evidence of his friends plotting against him, footage that Tanner immediately suggests has been doctored.
Suspects include Craig T Nelson, Dennis Hopper and Chris Sarandon; Tanner is also frustrated in his efforts to get his wife and child away from the blast-zone when things kick off at his retreat. Fassett has wired Tanner’s house with state of the art video technology (for 1983 anyway) and surreptitiously appears on Tanner’s television to coach him through proceedings; Tanner describes the action as a life-sized video game, indeed, a tense sequence where Fassett is unable to restore the news channel forces hm to literally fake the news by pretending to be a newscaster when one of Tanner’s guests enters the room.
Peckinpah dials back his fabled action style, but there’s action in the form of a disorientating car chase, a fierce baseball bat fight, and a fiery petrol-in-the-swimming pool finale. all in dreamy slow-motion And the post-script is deliciously sharp; Peckinpah in decline can still run rings around most spy-movie clichés, and the ending is as ingenuous and subversive as the whole package. The Osterman Weekend certainly shows Robert Ludlum’s non-Bourne narrative skills to good advantage, and has a dark political cynicism that seems miles ahead of it’s time. By the end of the movie, it’s not entirely clear is Fassett or Danforth was the original transgressor, or which video footage was real or fake Tanner, like the audience, is lost in a hall of morrors, and with a world untethered by the confusion of politically motivated information he’s been drip fed, the best he can hope for is to survive.