TORONTO — One of an actor's hardest tasks is to play a character who embodies opposite qualities. Donald Sutherland meets this challenge in "The Assignment," where he portrays a CIA agent who commits appalling wrongs without losing the conviction that his goal - fighting international terrorism - justifies any conceivable means.
The movie follows him as he joins an Israeli operative (Ben Kingsley) to train a young American commando (Aidan Quinn) for clandestine action against a ruthless terrorist - also played by Quinn, since the US agent is selected because of his physical resemblance to the criminal.
A lot of violence (and sadly impersonal sex) spills across the screen during this operation, but in its best scenes the picture uses such elements to make a moral point: that well-meaning individuals who struggle against evil may become as corrupt as the enemies they seek to overcome, unless they guard vigilantly against this.
"The Assignment" would be a deeper film if it developed this theme more fully. As it stands, it's not a substantial movie, but it has the merit of investing its Hollywood star-power in a story that takes notice of compelling real-world issues.
Sutherland is an ideal choice for the CIA character, bringing all the experience he's gathered in more than 90 films since hits like "M*A*S*H" and "Klute" launched his career. His credits range from art-film classics ("Casanova," "1900") to such recent accomplishments as "JFK" and "Six Degrees of Separation," attesting his skill and versatility.
In person, he is also quick-witted and literate, peppering his conversation with lively quotes from authors as different as William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
And he's modest. Breezing past his own contributions to "The Assignment," he gives credit for its good attributes to Christian Duguay, the Canadian-bred filmmaker who directed it. "He's committed to building his stories on truth," the actor said in an interview during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where the picture had its North American premire shortly before its US opening.
Duguay recognizes "that audiences go to movies with their eyes and ears," Sutherland continued, "but also with their hearts and souls. An actual [movie theater] is different than television, because [moviegoers] lose part of their critical identity; their hearts and souls become a part of the film. And the heart and soul are quicker than the eye and ear.... This director sees that, so his pursuit in storytelling is to base it ... on truthfulness."
While a director must seek truth by objective means, using cameras and microphones, Sutherland feels a performer should seek it by subjective means, using words and actions. "I can't think of a film where I didn't believe that's what I was doing," he says. "I might have failed, but that would just be caused by my personal ignorance."
Asked to define the "truth" that movies can convey, Sutherland smiles and resorts to a metaphor. "It's an artichoke," he says. "Pull away a leaf, and there's another one underneath." Groping for a more specific example, he mentions Italian artist Alberto Giacometti, renowned for his sculptures of thin, elongated figures. "If you look at his early work," the actor says with another smile, "his people were fat. Then gradually they got skinny - because he went for the essence, the energy of them."
The basic "truth" of good movies may be hard to define, but Sutherland is aware that it's linked to how they reflect their society's values. "I don't try to bring political things into play," he says about deciding which roles to accept and which to reject. "But there are certain political areas I will not allow myself to be part of promoting. As for ethical and moral considerations - that's what it's all about! That's the only worthwhile thing in this business!"
Not everyone in the business would agree, Sutherland acknowledges. "The general [Hollywood] mind-set is not to respect the heart and soul of an audience," he says. "Moviemakers cheat [truth] all the time ... with the quick cut, the MTV montage ... and they think people don't see it. But even if viewers don't notice it, it alters their perception ... and it alters the movie's effect on them. We are damaged by that.... There's a lot of trash around today ... and it's the moviemakers' fault. All the pursuit is for profit."
In the long run, though, Sutherland thinks the good will defeat the bad, much as the hero of "The Assignment" ultimately helps the world without permanently losing his integrity.
"I don't see a lot of films anymore," says the star, "because I'm a little disenchanted with the process. I'm not entertained by them. But then, truth is the only really entertaining thing.
"I don't think the movie business will ever be a righteous business," he adds, "but there will always be righteous elements in it.... At its best, [film] contains some of the truest things you've ever thought. And with it, we can approach the human condition. You have to presume that on some level, your heart and soul are connected to everybody else's."
* 'The Assignment' is rated R; it contains a great deal of intense action-movie violence and sexual activity.