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When a writer sits down in front of a blank page or screen, he often has to use some kind of mental ignition switch to get the idea engine running. "What if" is always a good idea jumpstarter. For example: "What if a man turned into a shaggy dog?"
And at that point, no matter how bizarre the story idea may be, he gets it down on paper and, who knows, maybe comes up with an "and then" to heighten the dramatic conflict. In the movie The Sentinel, the screenwriter asks, what if ...
... a heavily decorated Secret Service agent, named Pete Garrison, is having an affair with the First Lady. And then one of Garrison's friends (a fellow agent) tells him that he's stumbled upon some critical and confidential information. But the man is murdered before he can reveal it. At the same time, an old informant of Garrison's comes forward with the claim that someone within the Secret Service is plotting to kill the President. And then the investigations of the murder and the possible assassination plot are combined and given to Garrison's former friend and protégé David Breckinridge. (Garrison and Breckinridge have bad blood between them because Breckinridge suspects Garrison of having an affair with his wife.)
And then someone (an ex-KGB thug?) blackmails Garrison with incriminating photos of him and the First Lady. And then, when Garrison fails a polygraph test, he suddenly becomes suspect No. 1 and must go dark to prove his innocence and discover the real inside man before the President is killed. And then ...
The film takes an intimate inside look at the Secret Service, the skills its agents develop, and the precautions they take to protect the President. Agents are shown putting their bodies between gunmen and the President and First Lady. Near the end of the movie, Garrison shields the President and takes a bullet.
The full sacrifice of these men and women is very heartening to watch, but the positives are diluted by the idea that one of their own could somehow have an affair with a member of the First Family and jeopardize everyone's safety. From another perspective, you can read Garrison's moral compromise as the source of his downfall. If he had stayed upright in his ethics and his job, he could not have been taken advantage of.
Rookie agent Jill Marin, who was trained at the Academy by Garrison, joins Breckinridge's team. And although Breckinridge suspects Garrison of wrongdoing, Jill tries to remain loyal to both men and help find the truth.
While Garrison is securing the First Lady's quarters, they have a brief sexual encounter in her bedroom. They embrace and kiss, and begin to undress each other. (No nudity is shown; the camera only glimpses her bare shoulders.)
Jill wears a closely tailored pantsuit that Breckinridge calls "inappropriate" for work. Agents make snide comments about her attractive appearance. One ogles her every chance he gets.
The film opens with archive footage of President Reagan being shot in 1981. Since the Secret Service's role as shield forms the film's framework, we're exposed to several shootings as the reels unspool. Garrison's agent friend is shot down in cold blood outside his house. His killer then tries to take out Garrison at a mall and ends up shooting several people. (They're seen falling and lying in pools of blood.) A ground-to-air missile is launched and destroys the President's helicopter. Garrison kills a bad guy while grappling with him.
When Garrison's fellow agents first show up to arrest him, he bloodies one man by hitting him in the face with a refrigerator door and clubs the other to escape. Later, Breckinridge corners Garrison and holds him at gunpoint. And although he tries to stop Garrison from escaping by shooting at the Kevlar vest he's wearing, Breckenridge can't bring himself to seriously harm his former friend.
In its climax, the film features a fierce firefight between assassins and the Secret Service. Automatic gunfire leaves one woman and at least five men dead with chest and body wounds.
Crude or Profane Language
Foul language peppers, but doesn't consume The Sentinel. The s-word, "d--n", "a--" and "h---" are all used two to three times each. And a crass allusion to male genitalia is used to challenge an agent's courage. Worse is the frequency with which God's name is paired with "d--n" and Jesus' name is taken in vain (between 15 and 20 times altogether).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Beer bottles and liquor glasses make quick appearances. The First Lady speaks of enjoying an occasional whiskey and offers one to Breckinridge, but no one drinks. Garrison pops several unidentified pills into his mouth and shares a few with a colleague (presumably to combat fatigue).
Other Negative Elements
When Garrison goes "underground," he steals needed items, lies to find out information, and uses his skills and experience to undermine and thwart the Service that he was once so loyal to.
My initial thought after watching The Sentinel was that it is a nicely crafted little thriller. Sure, star Kiefer Sutherland looks like he sleepwalked off the 24 set. And Eva Longoria seems little more than eye candy. But it isn't oppressively violent (for a thriller), and although adultery is intimated, there is, thankfully, no nudity or sex scenes.
But as the credits continued to roll, I realized that the writer and the director had charmed me. They kept Garrison and Breckenridge moving at such a fluid pace that I hadn't taken the time to really think about what I was watching—on a couple of levels.
The problem with the what ifs and and thens you stick into a script is that, at the end of the day, you have to, at least to a reasonable extent, explain the how and why of it all. The Sentinel doesn't bother. For instance, how did the sleazy informant find out about the plot? And why were the ex-KGB guys out to kill the President in the first place? The film initially toys with sinister CG imagery that makes you think the assassin is of unstable mind, obsessed with death for death's sake. Then it inexplicably abandons that track entirely in favor of a Cold War carryover with a nation-sized grudge. One more: How do you fit an affair into a First Lady's schedule?
Patriotism, justice and the value of the American Way all get great play here, of course. But despite hinting at the fact that Garrison's moral lapses open the door to the dark side, we're ultimately assured that his ongoing dalliance with another man's wife is a justifiable (and concealable) symptom of love, not uncontrolled lust.
And once again, (just like on 24, come to think of it) it's the rogue agent who gets the job done and takes down the baddies in the nick of time. The others are all either misguided, misinformed, ill-intentioned or narrow-minded. So while The Sentinel doesn't overdo the overt content (sex and gore) the way most of its 21st century peers do, it still puts audiences in the line of fire, leaving them to fend for themselves when it comes to ethics and morals.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Michael Douglas as Pete Garrison; Kiefer Sutherland as David Breckinridge; Eva Longoria as Jill Marin; Kim Basinger as First Lady Sarah Ballentine; Martin Donovan as William Montrose
Clark Johnson ( )
20th Century Fox