The novel Disclosure was pure Michael Crichton: a fast, alarmist, topical read without so much as a pebble of complexity to trouble the waters. Crichton no longer writes books; he writes Soon-to-Be-Major-Motion-Pictures. Yet Disclosure raised many hackles upon publication, as has the movie version, which is far superior simply by virtue of not shoving tons of technobabble down our throats. (Crichton lingers over descriptions of CD-ROM drives the way Judith Krantz lingers over orgasms.) Crichton is famous for tailoring his novels to Hollywood players: Jurassic Park practically had “Property of Steven Spielberg” stamped across its dust jacket, Rising Sun was written for Sean Connery, and Disclosure was so bald in its intentions that book critics wondered who would star opposite Michael Douglas in the movie. The odds-on favorites were Glenn Close or Sharon Stone, but Demi Moore won out.

Was Crichton, in fashioning a reverse-sexual-harassment plot, really doing what he said he was doing? The novel had a trashy-contemplative aura designed to make you think you were being made to think. Tackling this hot-button issue laterally, Crichton came up empty: The plot motor is still a beleaguered white guy’s anger at losing what little power he’s managed to attain. The junky, resentful novelty of the book is also present in the movie, but the director, Barry Levinson, has the wit to steer around it. His Disclosure is explicitly about power in all its corrosive aspects. The issue now is not whether it’s plausible for a woman to subject a man to sexual harassment (and the dynamics are too different to be comparable). The movie’s subject is the intricate web of paranoia and competitive aggression that creeps down and smothers any flicker of loyalty.

Levinson and scripter Paul Attanasio make clear that Disclosure will concern not sexual harassment, but false claims of it. The protagonist, Tom Sanders (Douglas, of course), a happily married father of two and an engineering exec at a computer firm, watches as his former lover, Meredith Johnson (Moore), snags the VP slot he covets. What happens next can be interpreted any number of ways. Meredith invites Tom up to her office and aggressively jumps him. He repeatedly says no, but to what extent does no mean yes in this situation? She gets him so worked up that he throws himself upon her, then snaps out of it and withdraws. Frustrated and enraged, she shrieks at him and storms out; the next day, she slaps him with a harassment claim. Given the lousy option of demotion and relocation, Tom threatens to countercharge Meredith.

There’s much debate over whether Meredith abused her power — she, being his boss, put him in that awkward situation — and whether Tom should have had the immediate wherewithal to defuse the festivities before they went too far. That was Crichton’s thesis; he turned personal accountability into a bland abstract issue. The movie breathes less heavily about ethics, preferring instead to explore this office misadventure (ludicrous on the face of it) as a metaphor for the rapist mentality of corporate America. Big-business power plays have always seemed like expressions of impacted sexuality — think of terms like “acquisition,” “hostile takeover,” “merger” — but few films besides Disclosure have approached the Freudian corporate subtext as a vehicle for satire. Tom almost gets taken over by the hostile Meredith, who would like to acquire him and definitely merge with him; and because he’s Michael Douglas and not a woman, we feel freer to laugh. In his shrewd-earnest way, Michael Crichton was (maybe unconsciously) on to something. Disclosure told its male readers what too many women already knew: how it feels to be screwed, in all senses of the word, by someone vicious and more powerful.

Levinson and Attanasio nourish this neat seed of an idea, but in one respect they don’t transcend Crichton. The firm’s CEO, Bob Garvin, was much more sympathetic in the book; he handpicked Meredith (and later came to her defense) because he wanted to see more women in power. His PC-ness blinded him to the truth. In the movie, Garvin, played by Donald Sutherland in full, gleaming cold-bastard bloom, is nakedly ruthless. A loud clinker here is that this Machiavellian CEO now has no reason to keep Meredith on, if his public speeches about smashing the glass ceiling are just hot air; it seems more corporately in character for him to make Meredith disappear and avoid the inevitable furor, which occurs on the brink of a crucial merger. And why would this man, who knows and sees everything, be unaware of Tom’s past with Meredith? Or is he covertly trying to stage a shake-up? Garvin’s motives could be a whole lot clearer.

Wisely, Disclosure takes us into Tom’s growing paranoia, his suffocating helplessness as his life slips from his hands. Michael Douglas, by now, has found his niche. In movie after movie, he sounds the frightened bleat of the dying white male. His rising blood pressure has become one of the most familiar sights in modern movies; he taps right into the wounded zeitgeist of middle-class white liberals who are sick of being called oppressors. His recent string of performances is an eloquent rebuttal to the reflexive man-bashing of the ’90s. He’s saying, Hey, we guys have it rough, too; everybody has it rough — these are rough times. In a sense, what he’s doing by casting himself as a victim of women is a repudiation of the popular victim culture that has paralyzed feminism and led to the insane Antioch rules, that has taught women that male domination is not only frequent but a given, and thus impossible to fight except through a kind of atavistic prudity. The message of these Douglas movies might be: Don’t whine — fight. Whoever’s holding you down, threatening you — fight him. Or her.

Like a true Hollywood entertainment, Disclosure doesn’t disturb its waters with complexity much more than Crichton did — at least, not enough to spoil the fun. And the movie is solid fun, make no mistake. It has all the ingredients of an absorbing courtroom thriller, except nobody ever makes it into court. The central sex scene is wonderfully staged, casting a queasy spell of eroticism and fear; it has the vertiginous, disorienting feel of the real thing. (Levinson, not known for carnality in his work, makes a quantum leap here.) There’s subtle support from Caroline Goodall as Tom’s lawyer wife, who’s much savvier about corporate piranhas than he is; Roma Maffia as the harassment attorney who takes Tom’s case; and Dennis Miller, who surprisingly refuses to smirk his way through his role as a techie.

As for Demi Moore, she’s a bit of a dud. Her Meredith is so transparently evil that nothing much seems at stake. (God, what Christine Lahti might have done with her — or Geena Davis, who’s overdue to play a villain.) As he has done with good movies and bad, though, Michael Douglas takes Disclosure on his back and runs with it. He succeeds where Michael Crichton failed; he makes you care about Tom’s clearing his name and savoring his triumph — which turns out, in the movie’s best unstated joke, to be staying in a cutthroat corporation, building CD-ROM drives for the rest of his life.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama

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