A great Saturday night flick from my teenage years, Roger Donaldson’s film hasn’t been much of a fixture since, and that’s a pity, because it’s a model of what a good, hard, modern thriller can be. Catching Kevin Costner on the way up certainly helped, and he looks great in his naval whites as Tom Farrell, who embarks on a torrid affair with the mistress of the US secretary of defence. Critics at the time found such narratives twists improbable; one wonders what they would have made of the brazen incompetence seen in Washington DC over the last few years.
The Cold War is the background; staff at the Pentagon fear a Soviet infiltrator named Yuri, although his face and identity are yet unknown. Secretary of Defence David Brice (Gene Hackman) is careless with his affections, and accidentally kills his mistress Susan Atwell (Sean Young) in a domestic assault. Brice’s henchman Scott Prichard (Minari’s Will Patton) formulates a clean-up operation, blaming the mysterious Yuri for her death, with the investigation led by Farrell (Costner). Farrell, however, was having an affair with Atwell, and has to hide his feelings of grief for his lover while attempting to identify a mystery man whom he knows will eventually turn out to be himself.
With a plot borrowed from The Big Clock, No Way Out has an electric conceit; Farrell is trapped in the Pentagon, trying to figure out a way to stop the blame for Atwell’s death landing on him; there’s a neat device of a Polaroid being upscaled by computer (very 1987) that shows how close the investigation is to nailing Farrell. Emotional depth is created and deserved by having Farrell disguise his grief, and there’s also some cool action as he dodges corrupt secret-service men in and around the DC transport system.
Working with Kubrick’s regular cinematographer John Alcott on his final project, Donaldson does a great job of maintaining pace and credibility, and the final twists were something of a mind-blower at the time. Of course, cold war thrillers were out of vogue by the 90’s, but guess what? They’re back now, and No Way Out’s complex plot and ambiguous heroics still make for a startling gumbo today. And the notion that sex and blackmail are at the centre of today’s political scandals has stood the test of time; if anything, the chess-playing ingenuities of 1987 seem admirable compared to the abject buffoonery of the last four years. Corruption, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be these days.