The Ambassador

Director:J. Lee Thompson                     
Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, Ellen Burstyn

Though it boasts some major movie stars, and a director who has made some notable movies (among them The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), The Ambassador doesn't seem to have made much of an impact during its theatrical release, and it seems to be somewhat difficult to locate on video (I've been looking for this movie for several years.) Which is too bad, because even though it has some uneven qualities, it is an engaging, smart, and realistic political thriller. Not only that, it's a rarity for its production company, The Cannon Group; a look at other movies by the Israeli producers (Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) will show they engaged in quite a lot of Arab bashing. In The Ambassador, however, the movie takes a fair and realistic look at the thoughts and actions of both Arabs and Jews living in the Middle East. Though there is still some bias towards Jews in the few action scenes (the Arabs never hit an armed Jew in this movie, despite the firepower they may have), politically, both sides are shown to have arguments for and against their separate causes.

Robert Mitchum plays the title role, American ambassador to Israel (named Peter), who has taken it upon himself to try to think of a solution to the tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel. "Peace can only come when good willed people sit and talk," he reasons. Though he also admits at one point to his security officer and friend Frank (Hudson), who accompanies him to a secret meeting with PLO members at the beginning of the movie, that maybe he's a little naive to the tensions in the country, and the people that cause them. Unknown to Peter, his lonely wife Alex (Burstyn, good in a difficult role) is having an affair with a mysterious stranger in Jerusalem. Mitchum and Hudson, despite their acting history and acting methods, actually work well together, even if both of their performances aren't quite what's needed. Mitchum always brings his presence into a movie, including this movie, but surprisingly, that's about all that he brings in this movie. Though Mitchum gave good performances after The Ambassador despite his advancing age, here he seems fatigued, and not quite paying attention. He is adequate, but barely. Hudson, on the other hand, gives a somewhat bland performance for the first half of the movie, then suddenly in the second half of the movie he regains his energy. Then he seems to be really enjoying himself, with his character smashing through the underground of Israel. Hudson looks like he is having a lot of fun in the movie, and looking at him in action it's hard to believe he would die of AIDS later in the year.

The meeting goes disastrously, with both the PLO and the two men coming under fire from both some mysterious shooters and the Israeli army. Taken briefly into custody, Peter and Frank are confronted by the upset Minister of Defense (Donald Pleasence), who wants to know why he wasn't told of the meeting (though it's quickly revealed that he would never have allowed it.) Shortly after Peter is released, unseen people reveal to him that they have a film of his wife having her affair - film that could hurt Peter's career if he doesn't give these people one million dollars.

And this is just the start of a tangle of revelations, dealings, and threats for just about everyone in the movie. It doesn't help that there are four groups of people involving themselves in Peter's problems and ambition. There is the PLO and the SAIKA (a more radical splinter off the PLO) from the Arabs. The Israelis have their official government view, but secretly there are those both wanting and refusing the idea of peace talks with the Arabs - and like the Arabs, doing everything possible to get what they want. And other players enter the game, such as a nosy reporter who gets the correct idea that something is going on with Peter's wife. The surprising thing is that, despite a few minor details that are murky, everything that is revealed makes sense, and is plausible. When the movie ends, we understand who did what, and why. Credit director Thompson for informing viewers who is who, and what they believe and want before the movie really gets going. This does backfire a little, because in the first third of the movie, Thompson is so busy defining everyone's role, the story pretty much comes to a dead halt. Also in this first third, he is also too busy to give us the feeling we are in Israel - the first third of the movie mostly takes place indoors, with only quick shots of outdoor Israel. But Thompson does regain his footing after this third is over, so the story quickly regains momentum, and we are also taken all over Jerusalem and the countryside, giving the movie a much needed sense of atmosphere.

The movie is officially supposed to be an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel 52 Pick-Up (which was remade into a movie of that same name two years later, also by The Cannon Group.) I haven't read the novel, but from what I know about it, The Ambassador seems to have nothing in common with the book (except maybe for some of the details of the blackmail *), which may explain why there doesn't seem to be any credit for Leonard in the opening credits. No matter, because the script is both original and insightful into the crisis in Israel. Arab and Jewish characters are given a chance to explain reasonably why they feel the way they do. Both sides also have prejudiced characters who refuse to listen to both reason and what the other side has to say. The script also manages to give us this without stopping the story (when it gets going). One clever moment has Peter talking to some Jewish university students (of all minds) about a number of aspects of the crisis, while an assassin lurks just a few feet away. The screenwriter also treats us to a number of ingenious one-liners, ranging from barbed comments, to irony and plain humor (yes, there are a few genuinely funny moments in this movie.) And there are a few nice little scenes, such as when Peter and Alex both are drunk in bed, and are lamenting about a number of problems.

There are a number of interesting little details about The Ambassador that, despite its flaws, make it an engaging thriller. One of my favorites was seeing the actor who plays "Huey" in the Lemon Popsicle movies (including Private Popsicle) here playing the role of a greasy film developer. What's most interesting about this movie is that it proposes an idea in the movie that just might work in real life to solve the peace problem plaguing Israel. Though the character of Peter proposes this idea, he realizes that it will not solve the problem overnight, and he also states, "You might both have to give up something if you want peace." Let's hope enough good willed people on both sides take this statement to heart.

* After watching this movie and writing up the above review, I gave the movie to my father, who is an Elmore Leonard aficionado. He confirmed that the only thing The Ambassador has in common with 52 Pick-Up is the blackmail involving a film with sexual activity in it.

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Check Amazon for Robert Mitchum biography "Baby I Don't Care"

Also: The Black Godfather, An Enemy Of The People, New York Cop