Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Mercury Rising

by Ryne Douglas Pearson and Lawrence Konner

reviewed by Don Harlow

While waiting for all the great new summer movies -- and they should be here soon; they seem to come earlier every season -- you might want to catch this somewhat interesting, and action-filled, new Bruce Willis flic. I enjoyed it, and even took my son David to see it, though primarily to see if he recognized one of the two main characters as himself. (He didn't, or at least he didn't admit doing so -- but he enjoyed it, too, though he had a tendency to collapse in paroxysms of laughter every time Willis used rough language...)

Willis is FBI agent Art Jeffries, one of the Bureau's top undercover men -- until, after infiltrating a Freemen-type cell in the Dakotas, he fails to stop a Bureau massacre during a bank-robbery-hostage-crisis of all the cell's members, including the leader's two teen-age sons. After punching out the Agent in charge, he is relegated to "sitting on a wire" (phone-tap stakeout) and other minor tasks. One other minor task is helping local police find a missing boy at the site of an apparent familial murder-suicide.

The missing boy is Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes), autistic son of the two dead parents. Jeffries quickly finds little Simon, and -- troubled both by certain clues at the death scene and by feelings of responsibility for the two dead boys in the Dakotas -- keeps an eye on him after he is taken to the hospital. He quickly becomes convinced that someone is trying to kill Simon, probably because of the bullets that keep flying around wherever the boy happens to be.

What Jeffries doesn't know (though we do -- and he finds out a bit over halfway through the movie) is that Simon found a telephone number in the middle of a cryptogrammatic puzzle in a puzzle magazine and phoned that number -- and the number belongs to an organization that the FBI euphemistically refers to as No Such Agency (the acronym works out properly), which placed the puzzle as a final test to demonstrate that their Mercury code was uncrackable. Simon, however, has cracked it. The head of the project, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Kutrow (Alec Baldwin, looking much beefier than he used to), has quickly convinced himself that the life of one autistic boy ("one of nature's mistakes") is of considerably less importance than the integrity of NSA's communications channels, and has taken steps to ensure that integrity.

The movie mostly consists of Jeffries running with Simon (the FBI is after him, too, for kidnapping Simon from the hospital), Jeffries learning to communicate with simon, Jeffries drafting one or two allies to help him, Jeffries crossing swords with Kutrow. Ultimately things work out, as you may suppose, though perhaps not from the NSA point of view. The ending is a bit of a tear-jerker. There is apparently some romance in the latter part of the film (Kim Dickens as Stacey Sebring), but you have to look very, very fast to convince yourself that it is romance (and that just before the final scene).

Simon largely steals the show, which seems appropriate. The novel on which the movie was based bore the title Simple Simon, but Simon is far from simple -- a mistake many people, including some parents of autistic children, make. Simon's mannerisms may bother you -- the rote repetition of certain phrases, the emphasis on routine, the inability to initiate communication with others or even make eye contact, the constant back-and-forth rocking in some scenes -- but they are quite realistic. And under that uncommunicative exterior is a brain that, in terms of strict intellectualization, is at least normal, and in terms of the ability to recognize patterns is so far beyond normal that Simon sees patterns where, in real life, they simply can't exist (an encrypted message) -- the one place in the movie where you must really suspend your disbelief.

Most viewers, I suppose, will go away with the feeling that poor Simon will never get any "better", but I think this is a fallacy. An autistic person will remain autistic -- no getting around that -- but there do seem to be degrees of autism, and, given that autistic people are in general as intelligent as everybody else, they can learn about their problems and intellectualize ways of getting around at least some of them -- they can "fake" normality, so to speak. Simon's behavior is very similar to that of my son at age seven or eight, but by age twelve David is far more communcative, largely -- with occasional lapses -- able to function at least acceptably among his more "normal" contemporaries, able to do mainstream schoolwork, and interested in some things outside his own little sphere of behavior. We can hope that, as he grows older, Simon will evolve similarly.

(Note: David has reviewed this review and OK'd it for transmission.)

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