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Disclosure

(Barry Levinson, USA, 1994)


 


Disclosure is based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park (1993) fame. It’s one of those big, populist films that tries to ride the wave of a hot, topical issue, like legal recognition of gay families, land rights for indigenous peoples, sex education, women in the workforce, and so on. Typically, these films attempt to dramatise a range of clashing opinions on a topic, ranging all the way from the arch-conservative to the loony radical.

For that reason, films of this sort tend increasingly to resemble an episode of a raucous television talk show like those run by Oprah Winfrey or Ricki Lake. Someone on stage asserts: "Society is to blame." The person next to him or her retorts: "No, each individual is responsible for their own behaviour." The host interrupts: "Hey chill out, don’t you know it’s the ’90s?" And a person jumps up in the studio audience to confess: “I just don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore in this crazy world of ours!”

In Disclosure the hot topic is sexual harassment. The film takes the well-known feminist analysis of harassment and tries to turn it on its head, by showing Meredith (Demi Moore) harassing Tom (Michael Douglas). The thing is, he was expecting a big promotion, but this outsider to the company, this woman – who also happens to be his ex-lover from long ago – gets the job instead. And no sooner has Meredith settled in her office than she is calling Tom up for an evening meeting, and making spectacular sexual advances to him. Tom almost goes all the way with it too. But, just in the nick of time, he glimpses himself in the mirror, remembers his wife and kids, pulls up his pants and strides out the door.

So our man goes into bat, and tries to bring sexual harassment charges against Meredith. It’s more than a little disconcerting to watch Douglas storming around appropriating women’s liberation slogans like: "Harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power." It’s even more disconcerting to then hear him twist these slogans into the whiny, envious complaints typical of the Men’s Movement. "So tell me," he asks his wife, Susan (Caroline Goodall). “When did I ever have the power?”

The topic of sexual harassment really only comes up a few times in this movie. I’m told that the film considerably softens the strident, anti-feminist attitude of Michael Crichton’s novel. Except perhaps for one crazy scene where Tom uncharacteristically starts yelling at Susan about being unfairly typecast as an evil white male with a vicious patriarchal urge. This is the only moment where our victimised hero starts talking like some unholy amalgam of Terry Lane, Andrew Bolt, Paddy McGuinness and David Mamet.

In actual fact, the film goes out of its way, for the most part, to avoid the unfair demonising of career women, gays, or any other oppressed social group. It’s a film that plays with the fire of a certain political incorrectness, but ultimately stays on the safe side of this hot, divisive topic. Thrillers in a similar ballpark, such as Single White Female (1992), go a bit further, taking a few more risks.

Ultimately, sexual harassment is only a plot device in Disclosure. Throughout the film, Tom keeps getting anonymous computer messages from “a friend” telling him to forget Meredith, look for the bigger picture, solve the real problem. At a certain point the film shunts completely on to this different track. It becomes a straightforward mystery intrigue set in the corporate, high tech world of the information industry. The film drags in every gimmick it can here, including one rather gratuitous and fairly hilarious journey through the virtual reality of cyberspace. A synthesised Tom glides through digital graphics, talking to an angel and dodging a demonic cut-out of Meredith. I thought for a second I was re-watching The Lawnmower Man (1992).

But as long as the film keeps a foot in something vaguely approximating the real world, it is a fairly skilful, well-crafted piece of suspense cinema. This is the terrain where director Barry Levinson does his best work, as he showed in his memorable gangster film, Bugsy (1991). Levinson turns the headquarters of this computer company into a fascinating space. On the one hand, it is a vast, glass house, with everyone looking at, spying on and overhearing each other. On the other hand, it is a space full of tiny, technological duplicities occurring on phones, fax machines and photocopiers, and in the hidden depths of intricate computer systems.

Certainly, all these technological gadgets possess a lot more personality than the main actors. Moore is given absolutely nothing to work with in a thankless femme fatale-evil-career-woman role. Douglas, on the other hand, just runs through his usual set of histrionic turns. He plays the perplexed victim, then a man on the run, then a man lashing out, and finally a hero vindicated and beaming. Levinson looks after his secondary performers much better. Roma Maffia as Douglas’s lawyer in the sexual harassment hearings is particularly vivid and distinctive.

MORE Levinson: Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Sleepers, Wag the Dog, Tin Men

© Adrian Martin January 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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