Blow Out (1981)

Brian de Palma | 1hr 48min

Less than a decade after newspaper journalists exposed the Watergate scandal, and almost two decades after the Zapruder film became an immortal reference point for the endless probing of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Brian de Palma’s Blow Out examined the growing power of evolving media technologies to expose government-toppling truths. Of course, there are all the usual de Palma watermarks present – gorgeous split diopters, point-of-view tracking shots, dizzying 360-degree camera pans, and a suspenseful, absorbing narrative. But the Hitchcock acolyte has rarely used all of these so perfectly and in tandem with thoughtful colour compositions to deliver such a thrilling interrogation of a uniquely American brand of political corruption.

Brilliant split diopters used throughout Blow Out to divide the frame in two – the voyeur and the subject of their voyeurism, the detective and the answers they seek.

When sound technician Jack Terry is out searching one night for sound effects to use in his latest movie, his accidental recording of a political assassination literally lands him in deeper water than he had anticipated. Two other tight-lipped witnesses are present at the incident, and Jack’s romantic interest in one of them, Sally, pulls him even further into an underworld of conspiracies and dirty, murderous politics. 
In an early scene before the incident, we watch Jack framed in a split screen working on a slasher film, while the broadcast television news plays on the other half of the frame. Two types of stories are being created simultaneously here – one aiming for escapism, the other aiming to inform – and yet as Blow Out progresses there is a sly inversion that takes place. Later as Jack returns to his studio with his recorded evidence, we spend a great deal of time sitting with him as he rewinds, slows down, and marks the audio tape, his artistic methods becoming a meticulous, painstaking search for truth. Meanwhile, the news media covers the event as a freak accident, maintaining the happy illusion that American politics operate on an honourable code of integrity.

Split screens telling two sides of one story, both presented in different mediums.

Like so many other directors before and after him, de Palma keeps coming back to a red, white, and blue scheme as a representation of his nation’s proud colours. It is there in the décor of a motel room’s bold, patterned wallpaper and the floats of a street parade, but it is even more dominant in his lighting, as it dimly illuminates a bar where Jack and Sally flirt, and later bathes a dingy parking lot in the glow of neon signs. 

Red, white, and blue all through the lighting and production design. Beyond the camerawork, a de Palma film has rarely been so gorgeous.

But it is in Blow Out’s climax where de Palma combines these patriotic primary colours with some of his most suspenseful editing in a slow-motion chase, and thereby delivers perhaps the greatest set piece of his career. The masses celebrating Liberty Day are unwittingly cast as worshippers at the altar of a giant, American flag, where the political establishment viciously sacrifices its most recent victim in the name of protecting their own interests. De Palma’s camera dramatically circles around Jack as he cradles a deceased Sally in his arms, the parade’s red and blue fireworks simultaneously lighting him up and drowning his anguish in a dazzling display of nationalistic spectacle. 

A sacrifice to America’s political establishment on this star-spangled altar – a magnificent set piece.

The tragedy of Jack’s loss comes with his devastating recognition that recorded evidence alone is not enough to expose the bedrock of innocent blood upon which America’s flag-waving “freedom” is built. Media certainly holds some influence in Blow Out, but the truth is easily concealed by mainstream news sources who work alongside the political establishment. Sally’s murderer, the “Liberty Bell Strangler”, is only ever spoken of as some sort of un-American aberration, though of course the cruel irony is that those people who condemn him also rely on his brutal actions to uphold their blissfully ignorant privileges. Those like Jack who survive encounters with such men simply wind up with nothing but the ultimate curse of knowledge – understanding the truth, but incapable of wielding it in any practical way, other than pouring it into their own indulgent, escapist fabrications.

Following up one great set piece with a shot to go down as one of the best of the 80s – an explosion of red and blue as de Palma dramatically circles his camera around Jack holding Sally, and a torturous knowledge of the truth.

Blow Out is currently available to rent or buy on the Microsoft Store.


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