Looking back at Disclosure

Michael Douglas and Demi Moore set the box office alight in the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Disclosure. But has any film of the 90s aged as badly as this one?

Disclosure (1994)

There was a point in the 1990s where Michael Crichton’s novel, Disclosure, was something of a must read. This was a book that dared to address sexual discrimination against men in the workplace, from that man who wrote the thing with all the dinosaurs. And thanks to that combination of factors, it shot up the charts and stayed there for a long time.

Also in the 1990s, Michael Douglas was riding high. Off the back of Basic Instinct, he was Hollywood’s go-to guy if they wanted someone to have sex while wearing a jumper. And thus, when the movie version of Disclosure came together, in fairly quick time, he was the obvious choice for the male lead.

It must have been an easy project to greenlight. Hot author, hot book, hot actor. And just to ice the cake, Demi Moore, herself coming off two of her biggest hits in A Few Good Men and Indecent Proposal, was signed up too. Nothing could go wrong.

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And, in the eyes of Warner Bros, it didn’t. Made for around $32m, the film made over $80m at the US box office alone, in spite of its R-rating (18 in the UK). All concerned could chalk up another hit.

Rewatching the movie over fifteen years later, though, it’s remarkable just how shoddy it is. It’s entertaining, certainly, but this doesn’t at any point feel like a film that comes anywhere near to the sum of its considerable parts. Also, it feels more dated than any other film of the 90s I’ve ever rewatched. So, let’s take a look at why.

The basic premise of Disclosure, and the film we were sold, is one of sexual politics and harassment, albeit explored the other way around to usual. Only it’s not really explored. Michael Douglas’ Tom Sanders, for instance, is, at first, no better than anyone else. He joins in with playful banter with the guys, and he’s smacking his assistant’s backside. Playfully, of course. Even when he gets home, he’s asking his wife to fetch him a beer or charge up his mobile phone.

This does mean that he’s a slightly more complicated character than he could have been, but that complexity is largely ignored when the key scenes kick in. For Tom is overlooked by his boss, played by Donald Sutherland, for an expected promotion. And instead, old flame, Meredith Johnson, played by Demi Moore, gets the nod.

It’s Moore’s character, though, that debases any argument that the film may have. The idea is that she’s a sexually aggressive woman, but the problem is she’s a two dimensional one. On the day she starts her new job and meets Tom again for the first time in a while, it’s within minutes of screentime that she’s turning into a bit of a pantomime villain.

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A couple of narrative touchpoints, such as looking at pictures of Tom’s family, are the only moments of note that get in the way of what Moore’s character is there to do, which is basically to try and hump her new subordinate on the same day she starts working with him.

She’s supposed to be a high powered businesswoman, and yet she’s running out into the corridor in her bra, yelling at Tom to get back there. The sex scene itself doesn’t help, with Tom happy to be part and parcel, even pushing Meredith down on the floor and ripping her underwear off, before declaring he couldn’t do this after seeing himself in the mirror.

In print, I suspect this worked. Crichton, whether you like his writing or not, would have at least invested the characters with enough shades of grey to make what follows interesting. Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Paul Attanasio don’t do that, though, with the sex scene muddled, and the character of Meredith pared down to a corporate villain. When the whole situation eventually starts involving lawyers, it all becomes a by-the-numbers legal thriller.

Given the pedigree of both Attanasio (who wrote the astounding Quiz Show, as well as the hardly shoddy Donnie Brasco) and Levinson (Diner, Wag The Dog, Rain Man, Tin Men), it’s surprising they cheapen the material. But then, they’re making a glossy blockbuster film of a book that many sat and read on the beach. It’s hard not to feel that both could have still managed more here.

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To their credit, Disclosure still emerges as an enjoyable film, albeit an uncomfortable one. And there are a few factors that breathe life into it.

Firstly, there’s Douglas. He sells his character well, unafraid to highlight his imperfections, thus making him just a little more interesting. He’s got far more to work with here than he ever had in Basic Instinct, and his wardrobe features less knitwear, too.

Moore is less successful, but she can hold the screen, and was at the height of her blockbuster powers here, too. The pairing of Douglas and Moore is also, arguably, the last time two major movie stars shared top billing in a blockbuster and the whole thing managed to work. (Blockbusters tend to work with one or three stars, but never really two. We’ll be coming back to this point in a future article.)

The supporting cast are the ones allowed to have a bit more fun, though. Donald Sutherland takes the cheque and spends it quickly as Bob Garvin, in a performance most notable for an utterly disturbing dream sequence where he tries to give Tom a French kiss in a lift. Dylan Baker, meanwhile, long before he was allowed near Spider-Man, gets to do the slick corporate bastard role. I like Dylan Baker, and his job here is to try and get as much as possible out of very little. You won’t be surprised that he succeeds.

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I particularly liked Caroline Goodall here, though, as Tom’s wife, Susan. Her character just feels that little bit deeper, impressive given that Goodall mainly has reaction shots to play with. In a film that was, in theory, about a man being oppressed by a woman, it’s perhaps telling that the character who ends up making the more complicated choices is the wife of that man.

The film, though, and I saved this bit for last, cheats when it runs out of steam and becomes something else altogether. Because the sexual harassment angle only really spans about ninety minutes of the two hours running time. The rest? Well, it sort of becomes a techno thriller. And if the handling of the potentially complex sexual politics hasn’t left you with a dated feel by this point, then the filmmakers get the virtual reality set out and really go for it.

From the start, the film’s technology, once cutting edge, looks painfully old. The giant mobile phone is always the big giveaway, but Disclosure was made back when e-mail was a novelty. As such, just take a look at the e-mail application that Tom uses to get mysterious, untraceable messages.

I’m old enough to have been using e-mail back in 1994, and I’ve never used an application that has weird options such as ‘Label’ and ‘Com’ at the top of a screen. But then, Tom’s computer treats every e-mail as a special event. A massive spinning ‘e’, and then an animation of a letter being opened as every e-mail is opened? He’s one addition to a spam list away from having no time to do anything but open the damn things.

The gold, though, is the virtual reality corridor, arguably the most impractical way ever to retrieve large swathes of data. Virtual reality manages to look even less convincing here than it was in The Lawnmower Man, which is no mean feat. But it’s used for brilliant comic effect when it comes to Meredith Johnson covering her tracks.

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Even in the 80s, when you deleted a file off a computer it just disappeared, with little fanfare at all. Not in Disclosure. Half an hour earlier, you’d been watching a film about a man fighting to save his career by arguing a sexual harassment case. By the end of the film, we’re watching a virtual recreation of Demi Moore, gliding through the set of ITV’s Knightmare, in time to the real version of her hitting the delete key on the keyboard. It’s brilliantly hilarious, and instantly makes you understand why virtual reality never took off in the first place.

From here, Levinson and Attanasio try and glue the two parts of their film together with a  fairly obvious denouement, albeit one that ignores the fact that Donald Sutherland’s character has been a bastard who gets no comeuppance. Teasingly, with one line at the end, they throw in a taste of just how good Demi Moore’s character could have been.

As she’s sat, her boxes of stuff around her, waiting to leave, she utters to Tom these words: “I’m only playing the game the way you guys set it up, and I’m being punished for it.” Surely, the more interesting film would have delved into that just a little more, and not dispensed with it via one brief aside, minutes before the end credits rolled.

Yet, despite its R-rating, and despite the possibilities in its concept, Disclosure knows what it’s doing. This isn’t a deep drama, keen to be namechecked around awards seasons. This is a blockbuster thriller. The poster, which many councils in the UK had removed, does, after all, feature Douglas with his hands on Moore’s backside. The line underneath? “Sex is power.” Sex is box office, more like.

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Disclosure isn’t a bad movie, but arguably more than any blockbuster of the 1990s, it’s one very much of its time. Its muddled themes and uncertain handling of the material makes it an uncomfortable film to watch, and not for the right reasons. And that does taint it a little as the otherwise glossy, entertaining thriller it might be.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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