The premise sounds really trite. A TV network decides to put on a reality gameshow based on Russian Roulette during which someone may actually kill themselves live. Plus it adds an additional layer of potential suckitude by masquerading as a documentary. This is a fake movie, pretending to be a real movie, about a fake real TV show. But somehow it works incredibly well. This might be the best movie that I saw at Tribeca.
It works for the simple reason that the director manages to create an incredible sense of investment in his characters. And by doing so, he places the audience in a crazy moral bind. You want to route for the main character (the network programming exec, great job by Eva Mendes) to get her show on the air, even though it means someone is going to kill themselves. And during the actual show itself, each time a contestant raises a gun to their head, you’re playing this mental game with yourself. You don’t want them to die, but if they do die, it means that other contestants aren’t going to die so maybe its okay. Any movie that can force you to wish an innocent character dead is playing some serious mental tricks on its audience.
Live! is, of course, at least partially a critique of the American fascination with reality TV. But it also, possibly inadvertently, proves why they are so successful. The sense of attachment that Bill Gutentag creates between the audience and his characters is the same thing that every reality TV show goes for. Humans like to feel connected. We like to identify with other people. It is probably at least partially a biological imperative. The reason that your heart is in your throat for the entire last half-hour of Live! is the same reason that reality TV is so successful.
This was a movie where I had to continually remind myself that it wasn’t real. That the people weren’t real and that the TV show wasn’t real, to just try and break the tension it was building. And it didn’t work very well. Despite my best efforts at removing myself from the situation, the film kept sucking me back in. Five out of five.