Written by Tony Gilroy and directed by Taylor Hackford, Proof of Life feels like a late addition to William Friedkin’s globalisation trilogy of the 1970s – The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer. Like those three films, it’s a moody, melancholy and mercurial evocation of a new global world order, but a quarter century down the track, and with a more millennial tinge. Russell Crowe plays Terry Thorne, a specialist in “extraction,” who’s called in to handle the abduction of Peter Bowman, played by David Morse, an American engineer working on the construction of a dam in a fictional South American country. Terry introduces himself and his work in the credit sequence, when he explains that he mainly focuses on extracting victims from the post-Soviet landscape, from communities in a “volatile state of transition.” The film that follows charts the period between the end of the Cold War and the millennial end of history, dealing with a cabal of kidnappers who were Marxist revolutionary twenty years ago, but became drug lords, and capitalist profiteers, when the USSR collapsed and stopped funnelling cash to their operations. “Whatever political agenda they started with,” Terry observes, “has now been completely perverted,” leaving us in a haunted post-political space.
More recently, Proof of Life is indebted to Michael Mann, and to Heat in particular. This is a vision of the abduction narrative after Heat, in which everyone is a mercenary of one kind or another, untethered by any lasting allegiance to state or ideology. The kidnapping negotiators are dispassionate private contractors, drawn from competing risk management companies: Luthan Risk and Inherent Risk. Time and again, Terry insists to Peter’s wife Alice, played by Meg Ryan, that extraction is a business negotiation above all, much as the kidnappers outsource their negotiations to a member of the professional class. This all takes place against a dispersal of moral responsibility into patterns of endlessly deflected administrative accountability. The film opens as Peter’s engineering company is being dissolved, making it unclear whether the new company is still accountable for the cost of having him extracted. Things escalate because of this ongoing deferral of accountability, as the abduction threatens to become a purely administrative event, part of the transition from one company to another.
Against that backdrop, Hackford draws on the melodrama of the globalised male that Mann has made his own. From Thief onwards, Mann has focused on private contractors who glimpse connection in the midst of alienation, typically a networked connection that transcends any one person. This networked sense of connection allows Mann’s male workers to invest in their labour while recognising that it is alienated, and to find in that very alienation the prospect of a new depersonalised way of being close to other people. So it is here, as Terry returns to South America to help Alice find Peter, even though his company is no longer technically liable for the abduction. True to this networked intimacy, Terry spends most of his time negotiating, doesn’t end up with Alice at the end, and indeed can’t end up with Alice if he is to obey the code and ethic of his profession, since to have an affair with her would be to capitalise off the very abduction he is trying to mitigate. Instead, Terry communes with Alice through a more distributed and global closeness, through a shared sense of being together alone that Hackford, like Mann, evokes via a kind of cold warmth – the burnished blue-green filters and synthesised panpipe refrains of an emergent and transpersonal connectivity. At the moment of maximum alienation, when Terry finally nails the kidnappers to a figure, the main lights in Alice’s house go off, leaving nothing but an ultra-sensuous blue.
Even as Terry grows closer to Alice, then, he seems to be preparing for a more rarefied isolation. This isolation tends to be figured vertically, starting with the shots that introduce Terry after the credits – the yawning edifice of Lloyd’s Bank in London, a glass elevator that careens him to the ground, and then the helicopter that flies him into Alice and Peter’s town. The camera follows suit, adopting increasingly fluid perspectives to elevate itself further and further into the air. It makes sense that Terry works in the SAS, the Special Air Service, and that his speciality is using aerial transport to extract abductees. The whole process of extraction feels like a platform for transcendence, a way of moving to a higher plane of connectivity that overtakes conventional kinship and physical propinquity, much as Terry reflects fondly on his son’s aspiration to be a pilot while also noting that he barely knows him. It’s a terrific touch too that Crowe retains his Australian accent here, especially since he has one of the best American accents from Down Under. The Aussie accent always feels somewhat deterretorialised in American films, partly because it’s often used stereotypically, and partly because it just doesn’t occur all that often. Hackford leans into that dissonance here, using Crowe’s Aussie inflections as the harbinger of a world beyond political boundaries.
Of course, this alone-togetherness is most pronounced in Terry’s interactions with Alice – or perhaps more accurately, in the scenes where they communicate by telephone, discuss the case in person, or just think separately of each other as they perch high above the city, Alice in her house and Terry in his hotel. These must be two of the highest properties in Quito, where the film was shot, and they immediately recall the burnished melancholy vistas of Heat, the cold warmth of the apartment balconies that gaze out over the Los Angeles sprawl. Alice’s house, in particular, plays as a similarly soulful globalised space. Initially, it looks like a regular upscale house, but its parameters become more networked as the film proceeds. First, we learn that it is in fact the reclaimed home of a former drug lord’s mistress. Then, we find out that it is haunted by Alice and Peter’s daughter, who is buried in Africa, and who they named “Mali.” Reflecting that she, an American, lives in the house of a South American mistress, and had a child named after an African country, Alice asks Terry “who can make sense of that?” and he responds by using Mali’s name to verify himself to Peter when he finally rescues him.
As the film proceeds, Hackford suggests that this new networked space has replaced older political allegiances on both sides of the Cold War divide. Just as Terry seeks out high ground, the abduction plays as a single epic ascent that both takes the kidnappers further away from globalised space and deeper into it. They only abduct Peter in the first place because a traffic jam and a religious procession forces him to take the most precipitous and vertiginous route to work. When he’s sandwiched on a hairpin bend between a sheer rock face and a gorge containing the river he is supposed to dam, the kidnappers strike, abseiling him up the rock, and from there into the mountains, higher and higher, until they reach the snow line. We’re in the heart of the Andean wilderness, and yet this also turns out to be the nexus between a contested carbon pipeline built by the oil company that was subcontracting Peter, and the fields that the kidnappers are using to harvest drugs. Right when we appear to have retreated from the global, Hackford reveals that we’re at the heart of this volatile earthwide network.
Eventually, Peter is rescued, and reunited with Alice, and yet this only serves to intensify this globalised space, rather than resolve it. In the final scene, Peter lands by helicopter on the most panoramic vantage point in Quito, next to a satellite tower. This elevated zone is Terry’s natural home, so he only enjoys the briefest of smouldering gazes with Alice before the romantic triangulation of the three leads dissolves back into a Mannesque melodrama – a somewhat dissonant transition, as Alice seems to recognise, turning around to look through the back windshield of the car taking her to the airport as Terry remains on the mountain, poised to return to his itinerant mercenary lifestyle, but burnished with this networked moment of intimacy and authenticity. And Hackford concludes with a paean to that mercenary melancholy, pulling back from the mountain with a massive sweeping copter shot, and then overlaying a montage of beautiful aerial vistas on the closing credits. In these last moments, Hackford converges Terry’s ascension with the kidnappers’ ascension, and invites us to participate in the same ascension, as the vistas take us higher and higher, to the tip of the Andes, and eventually into the clouds, to a world beyond characters, relationships and situations, an ether of transpersonal transcendence that the film finally networks itself into.