In the early 1990s, Michael Crichton accomplished the writer/creator equivalent of an EGOT, an acronym for winning the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards, coined by Philip Michael Thomas and made famous by 30 Rock. Crichton scored a No. 1 movie (Jurassic Park), a top-rated television show (ER), and a novel that topped the New York Times bestseller list (Disclosure) within the span of a couple years. Yet despite his success, the prolific author still felt obligated to document the heroic struggle of rich, white, heterosexual males like himself, noble figures besieged on all sides by their natural enemies: Japanese businessmen (the subject of his incendiary thriller Rising Sun, adapted into a film that will serve as the next Forgotbuster), sexually aggressive businesswomen with perfect breasts (Disclosure), tree-huggers whining about how some nonsense called “global warming” will imperil the future of the globe (State Of Fear), and, to a lesser extent, velociraptors.
Crichton’s loathsome, borderline-unreadable 1994 bestseller Disclosure exemplifies the reactionary paranoia that characterized the author’s later career. The novel has the strange quality of being at once sanctimonious and unrelentingly sleazy, self-righteous and smutty. Crichton really seems to have deluded himself into thinking that he was writing a serious, relevant novel about sexual harassment, one that soberly explores the issue from multiple sides and highlights the advancements and complications of women in business and technology. What he really wrote is a rancid little potboiler overflowing with contempt for powerful, sexually aggressive women.
Crichton’s lucrative twist was to write a cyber-thriller about sexual harassment in which the aggressor isn’t the expected male predator chasing his freaked-out secretary around his desk (best exemplified by General Halftrack and his buxom assistant in the Beetle Bailey comic strip), but rather a 35-year-old ex-beauty queen with “perfect breasts.” (Those are Crichton’s words, not mine, and pretty much the extent of the antagonist’s characterization.) Her beauty is referenced so extensively over the course of the book that “beautiful” practically doubles as her first name.
This twist affords readers an opportunity to enjoy the personal and professional humiliation of a sexually aggressive businesswoman, while at the same time deriving seedy voyeuristic delight in her transgressive sexual encounters. In Meredith Johnson, the sex and power-crazed possessor of the aforementioned perfect breasts, Crichton created an antagonist that makes Darth Vader’s look subtle by comparison. She’s a sneering villain wholly devoid of redeeming characteristics, a misogynistic nightmare of female power run amok.
“It helps that film is a visual medium: We don’t need Crichton stacking the deck by having Meredith’s staggering good looks referenced on damn near every other page...”
Meredith Johnson is neither flawed nor complicated: She’s fucking evil. Crichton doesn’t see fit to give her a single moment of humanity, not a single scene where her mask slips to reveal someone vulnerable and sad, someone to whom readers might relate or sympathize. For all Disclosure’s talk of the swampy, complicated nature of gender politics in corporate America, the novel is largely devoid of moral ambiguity. Johnson is unrelentingly evil from start to finish, while the book’s whitebread hero, Tom Sanders, is all good. If Tom lets his guard down and briefly contemplates consenting to his boss’ sexual advances, well, dammit, that’s just because he’s a real man and that’s what real men do: They drink beer and play softball and solve problems and talk shit with their bros and at least contemplate having sex with beautiful women with perfect breasts when given the opportunity.
Not since Atlas Shrugged has a novelist strayed so egregiously from plausible human behavior in dogged pursuit of making a muddled ideological point. For example, when Meredith calls Tom to her office on her first day as his new boss, Tom attempts to keep things strictly business while she lasciviously discusses his “nice hard tush.” Now, I could be wrong, but I very much doubt that the phrase “tush” has ever been used by anyone other than heavily bearded blues-rockers from Texas and Eastern European Jewish grandmothers describing their grandson’s posterior. It certainly has no place in foreplay. It would be tempting to say that the unexpected and glaring appearance of “tush” in the novel’s big semi-sex scene took me out of it, but that would imply that I read the novel with anything other than morbid fascination, a grim sense of obligation, and a mounting sense of rage.
Disclosure is so poorly conceived that a prominent plot point involves Tom lurking outside a room in time to overhear a crucial piece of information relating to his future (coincidences are the lazy writer’s best friend/crutch), and the climax involves Tom walking down a virtual corridor in search of important files. That’s right. The man behind Jurassic Park tried to generate suspense from his protagonist strapping on a silly virtual-reality helmet before embarking on a hunt for relevant data. Is it any wonder the novel’s incredibly successful advertising campaign focused on sex?
The upside to Disclosure being a seemingly unpublishable mess is that it leaves the inevitable film adaptation nowhere to go but up. Sure enough, Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson’s version of Disclosure, written by Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco screenwriter Paul Attanasio, represents a massive improvement over its source material, in the sense that it did not make me want to projectile vomit in rage, unlike the novel that inspired it. Smart people solved some of the book’s myriad problems, streamlining the plot and eliminating unnecessary characters, like an angry caricature of a feminist op-ed writer and a wheelchair-bound guru who speaks in meaningful riddles.
Levinson’s Disclosure opens with the adorable young daughter of hard-charging technology executive Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) reading his email aloud, as her harried dad tries to get his house in order before heading out to work for a big day. This opening serves multiple purposes, unpacking a relevant piece of information and establishing its protagonist as a good husband, father, homeowner, businessman, and all-around exceptional citizen devoted to protecting his family against any and all threats, especially those involving sexually voracious women with perfect breasts.
Tom expects to be promoted to vice president at the technology corporation DigiCom following more than a decade of loyal service, and is horrified to discover that the promotion has instead been given to his ex-girlfriend, Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore). Levinson creates a sense of anticipation by having Tom (and by extension, the audience) leer at Meredith’s sexy stilettos and shapely, stocking-clad legs before we ever see her face. Like Tom, we’re supposed to be both turned on and vaguely threatened by these phantom legs of doom, even before we’re properly introduced to their owners.
Their first day working together, Meredith attempts to boozily seduce Tom during a late-night meeting with raunchy recollections of their past sexual history. Tom is not immune to his new boss’ charms, but he finds the strength to resist before their furtive fling can be consummated. In retaliation, and in pursuit of a sinister secret agenda, Meredith tells her bosses at DigicCom that Tom nearly raped her, but that she’s willing to overlook his transgression for the sake of a merger/spin-off that promises to make the higher-ups at DigiCom rich beyond their wildest dreams. Super-rich. Crazy rich. Michael Crichton rich.
Attanasio’s screenplay largely eschews the shrill sermonizing and smug posturing that hobbles Crichton’s novel. But it still makes the mistake of trying to pass off a line like, “All I know is any woman has to be twice as good as a man, work twice as hard to get the same job for less pay” as a tossed-off conversational aside, rather than as a bumper-sticker platitude. The screenwriter puts those words in the mouth of one of the film’s “good” women, hard-working professionals who don’t go around trying to distract menfolk from important, manly business with their perfect breasts and incredible beauty. Crichton surrounds Tom with women who are strong—his lawyer, his wife, and ultimately the executive who anonymously aids his quest for justice—but not too strong, and certainly not brazenly sexual like Meredith. It’s telling that the woman who ends up triumphing professionally at the end of the book and movie is a female executive named Stephanie Kaplan, also known as the “Stealth Bomber,” because she is so quietly capable. Kaplan (played by Rosemary Forsyth) is pointedly associated with quiet competency and family, in sharp contrast to the showy and childless Meredith. To make things even clearer, these “good” women loudly broadcast their contempt for Meredith and her scheming, backhanded, sexed-up way of doing business.
Despite the deck-stacking, it helps the film that Levinson assembled a vastly overqualified ensemble, though even a character actor as brilliant as Happiness star Dylan Baker—who plays Philip Blackburn, the head lawyer of DigiCom—can’t deliver a line like, “I’ve never even heard of such a thing, a woman harassing a man!” with anything resembling conviction. The smart casting ends with Dennis Miller, however, as executive Mark Lewyn. Miller is on hand largely to provide an excuse for salty quips like, “Tommy, you’ve seen more ass than a rental car,” and, “Ten years from now you’re going to need a forklift to get a hard-on.” The filmmakers apparently found such comments amusing enough to keep in the film, ostensibly as what can generously be deemed “comic relief.”
In the novel, Tom is paper-thin, a straight arrow trying to solve a series of seemingly impossible problems. Douglas excels at giving his characters rich inner lives, however, and he lends Tom an intriguingly unhinged air that makes it seem possible that he really did harass Meredith, whereas in the novel he is forever above reproach. The film version of Tom is darker, creepier, angrier, and more predatory. He’s a guy who thinks nothing of patting his female assistant on the ass or yelling at Meredith in a fit of rage, “You take those two champagne bottles in your refrigerator and you fuck them.” Tom veritably trembles with barely suppressed rage. In other words, he’s less like the bland hero of the book and more like the morally conflicted assholes Michael Douglas usually plays. That represents a substantial and important improvement.
Similarly, the book’s Meredith is such a deranged, one-dimensional monster that it’s easy to see why Tom could resist her, but Moore invests the character with a smoky, whiskey-voiced sexuality and tenacity that makes an impossible character strangely palatable. It helps that film is a visual medium: We don’t need Crichton stacking the deck by having Meredith’s staggering good looks referenced on damn near every other page when we can actually see that, yes, Demi Moore is a fine-looking woman. (I’m similarly appreciative that the phrase “tush” does not appear at all in the film version of Disclosure, in the big sex scene or elsewhere.)
Still, there’s only so much Levinson and Attanasio can do with the material that they’ve been given, so their Disclosure still prominently involves Tom strapping on the virtual-reality helmet and embarking on a rivetingly cinematic quest to retrieve relevant data in that fantastical virtual corridor, a sequence that must have already felt dated back in 1994 and looks like high camp today. For all of its talk about exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality, the sexual harassment plot of Disclosure turns out to be little more than a sexy sideshow meant to distract Tom from uncovering irregularities in the manufacturing of CD-ROM drives in Malaysia. Seriously. That’s what Disclosure is ultimately really about: a scheming woman who concocts the world’s most elaborate scheme to prevent an underling from uncovering irregularities in the manufacturing of CD-ROM drives.
Tom figures out what Meredith is really up to just in time, albeit with some assistance from an anonymous helper (that would be the quiet, deadly Kaplan) and the information he gleaned from some convenient eavesdropping. He then publicly humiliates and exposes Meredith and her schemes in a development handled with all the subtlety and sophistication of the unmasking of a villain on Scooby Doo.
Disclosure is probably the best film that could have been made from its source material. If there were an Academy Award for Best Screen Adaptation Of A Screamingly Awful, Viciously Sexist Novel, Disclosure would triumph. The film takes a preachy, disingenuous, and poorly written jeremiad against sexually aggressive women and turns it into a sleek, sexy, and only moderately sexist piece of Hollywood entertainment. It’s easy to see why Disclosure made more than $80 million dollars domestically and more than $200 million internationally: It’s the attention-grabbing, propulsive thriller Crichton’s novel should have been, even if the filmmakers and cast’s best efforts can only elevate the film to the level of sleek mediocrity.
Disclosure was a film of the moment, though its regressive attitudes and amusingly misguided conception of technology’s future sometimes lend it the air of a period piece. Technology has improved immeasurably since the weird old days of Disclosure. (Spoiler!) The CD-ROM did not turn out to be the future of computer technology, just as railroads did not turn out to the be the future of transportation, as Ayn Rand boldly predicted. But when it comes to the treatment of women in mainstream movies, Disclosure remains distressingly contemporary.
Up Next: Rising Sun