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Viewer Guide: “No Way Out” and “Styx”

July 30, 2021 | Richard Peña


No Way Out (1987)

This week’s classic is No Way Out, the 1987 political thriller directed by Roger Donaldson.

Set in Washington, D.C. during the waning years of the Cold War, No Way Out stars Kevin Costner in one of the breakout roles of his early career. Costner plays Tom Farrell, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander who attends a presidential inaugural ball to meet up with his old college friend Scott Pritchard, played by Will Patton, who also happens to be the General Counsel for U.S. Secretary of Defense David Brice, played by Gene Hackman. As an upwardly mobile career Navy man, Tom is happy to meet Secretary Brice…but even happier to encounter Susan Atwell, played by Sean Young, the beguiling escort for an unidentified married man at the ball. Skipping out on the party early in favor of a steamy chauffeured tour of Washington’s monuments, Tom and Susan embark on an affair before Tom ships out on another mission. After some publicized heroics at sea, Tom is recruited to join Brice’s efforts to secure inside CIA intelligence on a boondoggle submarine project. But when Tom discovers that Susan’s married mystery man is in fact Secretary Brice, his new job suddenly becomes a whole lot more complicated. Increasingly lost within a maze of secrets, it truly begins to seem like there is “no way out” from the web of conspiracy that Tom finds closing in around him.

Also featured in supporting roles are Howard Duff as a self-serving senator, supermodel Iman as Susan’s increasingly confused friend, George Dzundza as a Pentagon systems analyst, and Fred Thompson as a suspicious CIA Director. And here’s a tip—if you watch carefully, you’ll spot Brad Pitt as a background extra in the opening party scene.

A remake of the 1948 film The Big Clock based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing, No Way Out’s screenplay by Robert Garland updated the story, transposing the setting from the publishing industry to the political corridors of Washington D.C. After a number of stars, including Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Patrick Swayze, all passed on the role of Tom, Kevin Costner finally received the big break he had been waiting for after enduring such early career disappointments as seeing his entire performance in The Big Chill end up on the cutting room floor. One of the sleeper hits 1987, No Way Out’s famous concluding plot twist—revealing that Tom was in fact the Russian spy “Yuri”—turned out not to be not as farfetched as originally thought. In 2010, the FBI arrested a cell of Russian spies who had been living and working in the U.S. for several years unbeknownst to their friends, colleagues and neighbors, a story which later served as inspiration for the 2013 TV series, The Americans.


Styx (2018)

This week’s indie is the 2018 drama Styx, a German-Austrian co-production directed by Wolfgang Fischer.

Deriving its title from the river of death in Greek mythology, Styx opens in the British territory of Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain, where the untamed natural world exists just beyond the edge of human settlement. German actress Susanne Wolff stars as Rike, an Emergency Medical Technician whose self-possessed cool in life and death situations extends to her choice of vacation pursuits as well. Packing up her sailing yacht, the Asa Gray, Rike sets off on a solo expedition to Ascension Island, some 3,000 miles away deep in the southern Atlantic. Unfazed by what might seem like a terrifying challenge to most people, Rike relishes her solitude and the limitless vistas around her. But when an ocean storm ends the voyage’s tranquility, conditions take a dangerous turn that puts Rike’s sailing prowess to the maximum test. Awakening to a seemingly restored calm, Rike discovers a new threat in the form of a fishing trawler in the near distance. What’s more, the vessel is teaming with desperate people waving for help, and it quickly becomes clear that the damaged vessel is loaded with immigrants being smuggled into the European Union. Although completely unequipped to take on a large-scale rescue mission, Rike pulls aboard one valiant adolescent boy, played by Gedion Odour Wekesa, but soon finds herself thrust into a humanitarian crisis that challenges the moral fiber of her medical training.

In his remarks following a screening of Styx at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, director Wolfgang Fischer discussed his intentions for the film to dramatize the international immigrant crisis on a personal scale, posing a moral question for first world audiences to consider what they might do under similar circumstances. Although German actress Susanne Wolff did have a license for sailing boats, she had to submit to rigorous training to master the skills needed to convincingly captain the Asa Gray on screen. Except for parts of the storm scene, all of the ocean sequences were filmed on open water without special effects. For the crucial role of Kingsley, Wolfgang Fischer discovered Gedion Odour Wekesa through the German organization One Fine Day, which provides arts programs for the underprivileged school children of Nairobi, Kenya.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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