A title like this suggests a thriller about nuclear secrets, but White Sands offers nothing so exotic. It does have its share of conspiratorial webs and impenetrable (government) machinations, but if flounders disastrously due to a combination of crippling factors. Foremost is that reliable journeyman Roger Donaldson is unable to make a mark on a talky script full of cross dealing and murky motivation. It doesn’t help either that Daniel Pyne’s screenplay leaves out a major part of the equation that might have lent texture to the plot (namely, the guys ultimately buying the arms). And then there’s the casting. Mostly, it’s fine, but it fatally evidences a reason Willem Dafoe didn’t show up in many classic leading-man parts.
Occasionally, he flashes his vulpine grin as Ray Dolezal, Deputy Sheriff of Torrance County, New Mexico, but it merely serves as a reminder Dafoe’s playing an innocent and that such quirks are entirely out of place in Ray’s arsenal. Upon finding $500,000 in a suitcase next to a desert suicide, Ray takes it upon himself to investigate on his own recognisees. Something that proves very unwise, even if he’s ultimately able to make it out alive.
He’s soon embroiled in a plan by FBI agent Greg Meeker (Samuel L Jackson) to apprehend arms dealer Gorman Lennox (Mickey Rourke). Lennox’s partner in the deal is Lane Bodine (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); she and Lennox put up half, and Ray (Spencer) puts up half. However, it turns out the arms dealers they’re dealing with (one of whom is Fred Thompson) are asking for extra. There’s a wheel of black ops going on here. The dealers are getting their arms direct (“We deal with the Defence Department”); they aren’t ex of Desert Storm (which was all about stargates and portals anyway, it seems), suggesting at least a tacit acknowledgement within the military this is taking place.
Meeker is crooked, but the extent of his crookedness is unclear, since his story keeps changing; the money he and partner Artie took was off-the-books, and Internal Affairs are investigating where it went. Meeker tells them Artie took it. Artie’s girlfriend Noreen (Maura Tierney) tells Ray that Meeker told them he had “a plan to get the FBI off us. That way we could stay together and still keep the money”. Lennox refers to Meeker’s activity as a “pathetic little scam”, and Meeker maintains the line with Ray that Artie killed himself, and that he “borrowed” the money because Washington wouldn’t fund the sting. But there’s still a chance to make things good and bust Lennox if “I say Artie stole the money. You and me took a lemon and made lemonade”.
Ray: You got lots to think about. Choices. You could try to explain everything to the FBI. It’s a long shot, but you are a senior minority agent without even a bug stain on your record. Or you could kill him and take the money and run.
Faced with the options the eventually-wise Ray presents (above), Meeker opts to head off over the dunes, fleeing his own bureau with a suitcase full of… sand. It’s a slightly unlikely eventuality that admittedly offers both a great poster image and a memorable ending; it does feel a little as if the motivation for the scene has been retroactively worked out. At any rate, what we have is a bad apple(s) in an otherwise upstanding FBI, which is customary with Hollywood. That is, taken in isolation. The overall effect, however, is that White Sands suggest endemic corruption across all levels of government (FBI, CIA, the military), even if they aren’t acting as a single unit or in the same direction.
Lennox: The people you’re trying to help are being butchered by the government peace-keeping patrols, and blankets and Rice-A-Roni ain’t gonna change that.
Lane: Since when have you cared?
Lennox: All I’m saying is, before humanitarian aid can work there’s got to be some humanity to give it to.
Wiki has it that the arms are to go to “left-wing freedom fighters in South America”, although I was unable to locate this exact reference (the best I could come up with is the above exchange). Lennox, however, is unequivocally a CIA guy extolling a Hegelian ethic in his need to keep the wheels of an illusory world running. Lennox can do as he pleases in the name of nominal values (“Officially, I don’t exist. I can’t. My profit’s my reward for selfless service to God and country”). While we’re talking the world of freedom fighters in South America here, this is really the poles of East v West, Communism v Capitalism, Christianity v Islam, Right v Left and so on down to identity politics and corporate power (such as how the current Budweiser CEO is ex-CIA). Lennox says “This isn’t about sides”, but in terms of appearance, it is; it’s everything, as that’s how the public define themselves, or are encouraged to.
Lennox: Well, we’re partners. I’m action, and you’re money. We could be legendary. This isn’t about sides. This is about confusion. This is about creating enemies. The goddamn world’s falling apart. Peace reigns. Freedom reigns. Democracy rules. How can we keep the military/industrial complex chugging forward without clear-cut, pit-faced scum-sucking evil breathing down our neck? Threatening our very shores. Now, my job is to make sure the other side keeps on fighting. Whatever side we’re officially not on this year. But that’s water under the bridge. You helped raise the money with Lane. You came through for me.
Ray blanches at the “bureaucratic bullshit” of the agencies, while Lennox attests each agenda works, particularly his (“It’s beautiful. It keeps corruption to a minimum”). Super-smart Lennox is, for the sake of plot convenience, suddenly bereft of all faculties when it comes to entering a building alone on Ray’s say-so, allowing Meeker to shoot him; in that sense, Ray has grown wise to the world. Meeker kills innocents (Noreen) and is thoroughly unscrupulous. Lennox, with whom Ray evidently has some rapport, kills the Internal Affairs agents in cold blood, which crosses a line for the sheriff.
In that respect, then, White Sands strikes the notes of an appropriately cynical picture, one that wouldn’t be top of the list for receiving agency aid (although, one might expect the same of Enemy of the State, and one might be wrong). Even in a movie like this, though, the calling out is really small fry, simply another example of the acceptable cynicism that became a template of Hollywood cinema during the 1970s. We’re invited to concentrate on the corruption that is palatable, a fact of life, while the true machinations continue unimpeded. Are conflicts really about conflicts, in a political sense, even as a piece of theatre among leaders ultimately controlled by the same elite of the Elite, or are there, as Captain Mark Richards has intimated, more frequently more cosmic/inter-dimensional reasons behind such events?
With all this going on, White Sands really ought to be much more satisfying than it is. It’s a neo-noir from a decade that had its share of good ones (Red Rock West, One False Move, Deep Cover) and not so good (Final Analysis, Night and the City, Romeo is Bleeding, Unlawful Entry). And those are just a selection from 1992-93. It has Jackson in a significant mainstream role before he hit it big (he’d made waves for Jungle Fever the year before). Rourke in just about his last mainstream role before self-destructing via the devastating combination of boxing and facelifts. M Emmet Walsh shows up for about half an hour as if Donaldson watched the first two Coens movies and then went off the idea. Mastrantonio admittedly struggles with a thankless love interest part (that she’d make relative few movies subsequently that decade may in part be about family, but it may be about not wanting to play Maid Marians again).
Daniel Pyne had graduated to movies from the likes of Matt Houston and Miami Vice (he’s since returned to TV with Bosch). He was getting regular pay cheques at this point – Pacific Heights, The Hard Way – but something seems to have gone astray somewhere in this case. Donaldson insisted in an interview “No, there’s no other cut to White Sands” before offering ineffectual guff about how nice it was to make; you surely don’t have Mimi Rogers (as Ray’s wife Molly) and Fred Thompson opting to go uncredited for their roles with something more substantial for each having been pruned back. I can see that a Molly subplot might have got in the way – the Lane one, complete with de-rigueur steamy shower scene, frequently does – but the manner in which the movie sticks so tightly to the FBI and CIA intrigue makes it feel it’s missing a vital wheel, and that either the DoD dealers (or dealers with the DoD) or freedom fighters (or is that terrorists?) were supposed to have a more substantial spot.
The consequence is that the picture often feels too verbose in the wrong kind of way; talky thrillers can be great if they’re composed of intriguing characters and motives, but Donaldson succeeds only in making everything rather too linear, such that when there is exposition, it feels almost incidental. Nothing really takes root here. Perhaps because the way into the plot is unlikely anyway – that a sheriff would make these choices – nothing really feels like it has stakes. White Sands is going through the motions of a thriller, but forgetting, for the most part, to thrill (certainly, after Ray has been divested of his trousers by a couple of rejects from Diamonds are Forever).
At this point, Donaldson was managing to undo much of the credit the success of Cocktail had garnered him. Cadillac Man, this and then The Getaway all bombed, and it would take Species to claw him back some brownie points. It’s a shame, as he’d showed much potential in the thriller genre with No Way Out – Costner was considered for this – and the movie frequently looks great (Donaldson loves his desert helicopter views, courtesy of DP Peter Menzies Jr)
On the intrigue front, the disappearance of US army cook – no, not Steven Seagal – Justin Burgwinkel in 1993 has been linked to the movie’s themes. Burgwinkel became a cook at Fort Ord in California after failing – allegedly – to make the grade and join the Rangers. His girlfriend began noticing increasingly strange behaviour on his part. He was transferred to Fort Lewis during this time, given to shredding papers he had in a briefcase. He began acting very secretively before going AWOL. Except that he told his parents he was working, and was not AWOL. While staying at his girlfriend’s apartment, he told her to watch White Sands, which would make sense of things for her; she “thought he might be working for the CIA”.
Burgwinkel was reported AWOL on June 7 and last seen on June 12; his car was found with wallet, briefcase, ID and dog tags in it (of the latter, he’d told her if they were found lying around, it meant he was dead). There were rumours he’d been murdered due to Army Intelligence connections, while “others believe that he ran away from the military and made up this bizarre story to cover his disappearance”. Hmmm. I wonder which sounds more likely (Secret Squirrel’s comments are especially interesting if you tend to fabrication on Justin’s part, although he may simply be there as informed dissuasion). Unfortunately, the case sounds much more intriguing than the movie.