Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Barry Levinson’s Disclosure takes palpable pride in the timeliness of its subject (and in the corresponding role of cutting-edge computer technology in its plot), but the film’s sexual politics are as old-fashioned as they come. Adapted by Paul Attanasio from the latest by best-selling hack Michael Crichton, the film is about a man who is sexually harassed by his female boss—a turning of the tables that should ostensibly enable male viewers to gain a fuller understanding of the culture of sexual intimidation. The film, however, is not exactly the cinematic equivalent of sensitivity training. And not just because Demi Moore emitting a breathy “I like all the boys under me to be happy” to a male subordinate is unlikely to strike most men as an effective symbol of menace.
Disclosure tells a story in which conventional gender roles are reversed. Yet before the film’s male lead is subject to harassment by a woman, his character is established in traditionally “feminine” terms. Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) is the more domestic parent in a two-career family. In the film’s opening scene, Sanders is late to work because he has trouble getting the kids off to school, and arrives still sporting their toothpaste on his tie. His unprofessional tardiness and appearance are both linked to his status as a parent. Unlike his male superiors at the company, Sanders is not stylishly dressed: He’s clad in an unflattering plaid suit-jacket that’s the male equivalent of a frumpy skirt-and-sweater set. Even his new boss, Meredith Johnson (Moore), is dressed in a more masculine fashion than he. (A glance at Disclosure‘s credits confirms that Sanders’ wife kept her maiden name. Given the subtlety of the film’s characterization of its hero, its surprising that they didn’t make him take her name.)
Sanders is expecting an important promotion, but finds that he has been passed over in favor of Johnson, who just happens to be one of his old flames. That same evening, she asks him to her office for an evening meeting, only to greet him with a bottle of chilled wine and what the film’s press kit calls a “coolly aggressive overture.” Sanders makes some halfhearted attempts at refusal, then rips off Johnson’s panties and flips her onto her back atop a desk before deciding that what he’s about to do is not such a good idea. As he hastily readies to leave her office, the enraged Johnson (you can’t have an abortive sex act without an enraged johnson) vows revenge.
I don’t doubt that it’s possible for a man to be sexually harassed by a woman, but the scenario presented in Disclosure is not a convincing one. This is at least in part because the film insists that there is an exact parallel between harassment of women by men and of men by women. But harassment of a man by a woman lacks the implied threat that results from being at a physical disadvantage. When she’s thwarted, all Johnson can do is fume, “You get back in here and finish what you started!” Later, when Sanders decides to file a legal complaint against Johnson, he is subject to conditions that are pointedly similar to those experienced by female victims of harassment and even rape: He is afraid that no one will believe him; he is embarrassed by having to recount what occurred in clinical detail; his reputation is excavated in an attempt to prove that it was his fault. But all this is grossly inappropriate in a film that employs the notion of sexual harassment in the service of soft-core titillation.
The film accords the same superficial treatment to computer technology, which plays a peripheral role in Sanders’ tale of corporate intrigue. In some doomed bid for hipness, a great deal of effort is expended attempting to elicit a “gee-whiz” response to demonstrations of modern technology: These are as elaborate as virtual reality, as common as e-mail, and as downright mundane as cellular phones. Even the film’s opening credits scroll computer-style across the screen. (Of course, this is a film that leaves no bid for hipness unturned: The scruffy head of the the technical staff at Sanders’ Seattle-based firm, for example, is an unmistakable Kurt Cobain look-alike.)
As a modern-day adventure, Disclosure is particularly dispiriting. Its setting is an office building and what’s at stake are job titles. Even the rather desperate introduction of showy “virtual reality” sequences doesn’t do much to liven things up. Indeed, the film’s most notable achievement may be the induction of new possibilities into white men’s affirmative action nightmares. (When the company president announces Johnson’s appointment, he mentions doing away with “the glass ceiling” by way of explaining his decision.) As if foxy department heads weren’t enough, one would-be humorous sequence even depicts Sanders having a nightmare in which he is sexually harassed by a male boss.
In Disclosure, Douglas plays the latest in a succession of men victimized by predatory women—Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, et al. Like the villainess in Fatal Attraction, Johnson threatens not only Sanders, but his picture-perfect nuclear family as well. As in those films, a “sexy” veneer conceals extremely traditional notions of sexuality: The aggressive female character is punished while her matronly counterpart is rewarded. (How to tell who’s who? Johnson plots corporate evil from her StairMaster while repeated references are made to the fact that Sanders’ wife “still hasn’t lost” the weight she put on while she was pregnant.) In the meantime, thanks to his emasculation at the hands of the filmmakers, Sanders’ ordeal ends up looking like little more than an object lesson in what happens to wimpy guys.