Perhaps the most famous frame in Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out is of a woman, portrayed by Nancy Allen, desperately reaching out for help. She’s being attacked, but we don’t see her assailant; instead are the stark stars and stripes of Old Glory, looming large and enveloping the background behind her. Like many brilliant shots, a print of it could hang in a museum and elicit thousands of interpretations.
That the shot comes at the culmination of a story about a citizen who gets wrapped up in trying to expose the truth about a political assassination renders it, perhaps, a bit on the nose. But it sort of has to be. And De Palma exerts such gifted visual storytelling ability that by the time we’re treated to this image, it feels earned. The film builds a sense of paranoia and dread, consistently ramping up the tension and intrigue. Today, thirty-six years on from Blow Out, it’s not unfair to see the image and feel a sense of camaraderie with the woman, hoping someone grabs and pulls.
Blow Out stars John Travolta as Jack, a sound engineer for a B-movie company in Philadelphia who unexpectedly records what, at first, seems like a car accident that killed a presidential hopeful. Poring over the recording, Jack realizes there’s much more to it. We follow as he tries to get to the truth and bring it to light.
One of the film’s key scenes shows Jack putting together the pieces of the conspiracy as he tries to get at the truth. In what is doubtless a bit of a love letter to the art of filmmaking, too, we watch Jack arrange still images of the accident that were taken by a “bystander” (spoiler alert: not quite) and sync them up with his audio recording. He quite literally makes a short film to make a convincing case that not everything adds up.
The internet, with its treasure trove of information, has allowed the layman to attempt their own amateur sleuthing, much like Jack performs in Blow Out. Watching this scene made me think of today’s Twitter users, some of whom use the platform to grab information piecemeal and package it together to attempt to make a convincing argument or uncover some overlooked truth. We see this in the ever-popular strings of tweets that unspool like a narrative, shared by others with the dramatized singular word “Thread,” or “This.”
Like Jack, we hope we’ve found something that others haven’t. We think we can make a difference. Blow Out shows the limits of such pursuits. What’s great about the film, too, is that De Palma chooses not to explicitly pit our heroes up against “the system.” There’s a villain (played by John Lithgow), and we can infer who he’s working for, but De Palma avoids leaning on cartoonish jack-booted government thugs or crooked police. We know that the great monolithic threat is there. Something that’s everywhere around you often renders itself invisible.
The heroes of Blow Out exude a constant feeling of dread, and along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, De Palma expertly uses lighting to create a sense of unease. In particular, the use of red is near ubiquitous throughout the film. Myriad shots bake the actors’ faces in a creeping crimson shade. In film, television and radio circles, a red light is the signal for those around to be quiet, recording is underway. In many of Blow Out ’s key scenes, the creeping reds give the sense that the characters are constantly being watched, their conversations listened to. It’s no coincidence that Jack’s trade is that of a sound man (in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which Blow Out is based on, the hero is a photographer). He listens in and records. In the key early moment, just prior to recording the accident, Jack is caught eavesdropping on a couple. Travolta plays this close to the vest. We don’t get the sense that Jack has taken a perverse liking to this, but he’s by no means ashamed, either. He points his hi-tech microphone at the couple and follows them with it, recording, even as they notice him. Perhaps his intent isn’t nefarious, but he’s clearly invading their privacy. Later on, as he gets closer to unraveling the mystery, Jack finds that his personal space has been invaded—someone has broken into his studio and erased all of his tapes.
De Palma’s use of split diopter shots and deep focus contributes to the sense of paranoia as well. Of note is a scene that takes place at the hospital after the accident—Jack is presented in the foreground, in close up, listening as two representatives of the governor are talking about him a bit down the hallway in the background. In a film like Blow Out , everything-in-focus shots force the viewer to make choices. We can clearly see two or more important things at once, and we have to decide what’s more important. This mirrors Jack’s pursuit of the truth. It’s impossible to be looking in two places at once. When we look somewhere, we could be missing crucial information in another place. Or maybe the closer we get to the truth, the more someone tries to mislead us. They’re telling us to look here, when really we should be looking there.
The presence of America is everywhere in the film, big and small. It’s in the streets and the sky, on billboards, clothing, wallpaper. We can’t escape our history. We can only reckon with it. I sat down to watch Blow Out a few days after the President of the United States seemed to intimate that nuclear war might be on the horizon. A few days after that, white supremacists and Nazis descended on Charlottesville for a rally that resulted in a terror attack and the death of an innocent 32-year-old woman. The President responded by saying blaming violence on all sides, then, finally, meekly denounced the Nazis by name after about 72 hours—before reversing course again and defending white supremacists and laying blame on the media. Over the years, we may have approached something resembling coming to terms with how America was built, what America really means, the burdens we all share. But a common refrain after Charlottesville was, “This is not us.” It’s clear we have a long way to go yet.
One thing that makes a film great is its ability to maintain relevance as the years pass by. Sometimes outside forces and current events can nudge a film back into the limelight, but many great films are able to exude a certain sort of timelessness regardless of what the world is up to at a particular time. Overtly political films have an even thinner edge to walk in pursuit of continued relevance. One that depicts a true story, like, say, All the President’s Men, has to hope to find universal themes that will make watching decades later not feel merely like a day in history class. The Ides of March, which brings us inside the icky world of political movers and shakers, often gets a bit too close to the flame and runs the risk of sensationalizing or grandstanding. Blow Out endures because it works as both simultaneously a political and apolitical film. It’s a story about a person’s search for truth, a truth that the public should know but those in power have to keep secret. Though it’s nearly 40 years old, Blow Out feels very much a reflection of today’s unease. It’s about being unable to escape our shared past. If you’ve felt fear and exasperation since last November, you’re likely to view Blow Out today as a timeless parable of a country that has forever struggled to accept and truly understand its worst impulses, of a citizen doing their best to right wrongs and finding helplessness in the pursuit. In our post-truth age, when many of these worst impulses seem to be on overdrive, bubbling up to a potentially untenable crescendo, watching Blow Out remains a visceral experience.
Featured Image: Filmways Pictures