There is a scene in the 1997 Barry Levinson film Wag the Dog where, a Hollywood producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, explains to some young White House press secretaries about when to release an impending press statement that could save the presidency of their boss:
“Schumann is the shark. Jaws would not have been the same if you had seen the shark in the first reel. You’ve got to tease the audience.”
Which comes neatly I believe to Declaration of War (2011) and its opening scene where co-writer/director/lead actress Valerie Donzelli shows her audience “the shark” in the form of her son Adam entering a chamber to have a cat scan.
Adam at this stage is about 11 years old and, as he disappears into the machine, we are cast back to where it began, the love story of his parents; their friction over doubts about Adam’s development; and his eventual diagnosis with a malignant brain tumour.
As the film moves through these sequences, we are linked to war – the parents’ war on the illness and refusing to give in and the corresponding invasion of Iraq or Iran by US troops.
The film is based on a true story, autobiographical for Juliette (Donzelli), and involving her husband Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) and son Adam, to whom the film is dedicated.
However, that bit about being teased sat uneasily with me. Knowing from what I saw in the opening scene that Adam survived until at least 11, took the drama away.
Throughout, suspense is built as to whether the boy will make it but then immediately dispelled because we know he does. Consequently, it becomes a case of caring about the people in it and the eventual survival of Juliette’s marriage to Romeo. Frankly I couldn’t have cared less.
Once I knew the son survived and the parents had been spared the ultimate family tragedy of losing a child, my concern was for entertainment and I didn’t get it.
Raw, gritty with attempts at humour from close family – Romeo’s mother and her female companion; and Juliette’s wealthy, caring parents – weren’t enough to save this movie.
Frankly, at one point when the couple are on a rare night out to forget about Adam’s condition for a moment, a Renault stops quickly at a crosswalk to let them pass. I hoped it would keep going.
To me, they had no redeeming features except devotion to their son which I admired. The possibility of Adam dying gave them a sympathetic vein but the director took that possibility out of the equation in scene I.