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The Negotiator Film Analysis Essay

This article is about the 1998 film. For the unrelated 2003 Japanese film, see Kōshōnin. For the unrelated novel, see The Negotiator (novel).

The Negotiator is a 1998 American actionthriller film directed by F. Gary Gray, and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey as two hostage lieutenants.


Lieutenant Danny Roman, a top Chicago Police Departmenthostage negotiator, is told by his partner, Nate Roenick, that according to an informant (whom he refuses to name) members of their own unit are defrauding large amounts of money from the department's disability fund, for which Roman is a board member. When Roman goes for another meeting, he finds Roenick dead seconds before other police arrive, pinning Roman as the prime suspect.

Matters become worse for Roman when Internal Affairs investigator Terence Niebaum, whom Roenick's informant suspected of involvement in the embezzlement, is assigned to investigate the murder. After the gun that killed Roenick is linked to a case Roman had worked on, Niebaum and other investigators search Roman's house and discover papers for an offshore bank account with a deposit equal to one of the amounts of money embezzled. Roman is forced to surrender his gun and badge, and his colleagues are skeptical of his protests of innocence. With embezzlement and homicide charges pending, Roman storms into Niebaum's office and demands answers about who set him up. When Niebaum refuses to answer, Roman takes Niebaum, his administrative assistant Maggie, police commander Grant Frost, and weak willed con man Rudy Timmons as hostages.

With the building evacuated and placed under siege by his own CPD unit and the FBI, Roman issues his conditions: locating Roenick's informant and summoning lieutenant Chris Sabian, the city's other top negotiator. Roman believes he can trust Sabian, because he talks for as long as possible, sees tactical action as a last resort, and being from another precinct eliminates him as a suspect in the disability fund scheme. Sabian clashes with the CPD, but is given temporary command of the unit after they hastily attempt a breach that goes awry, resulting in two additional officers becoming Roman's hostages. One of which they believe Danny has killed.

Roman trades Frost to Sabian in exchange for restoring the building's electricity (turned off after the hostage execution). With the help from Rudy and Maggie, Roman accesses Niebaum's computer and pieces together the scheme; corrupt officers submitted false disability claims that were processed by an unknown insider on the disability fund's board. He also discovers recordings of wiretaps, including a conversation that suggests Roenick was meeting his informant before he was killed. Sabian, using the information Roman provided, claims to have located Roenick's informant in a bid to get Roman to release the hostages. Roman realizes Sabian is bluffing when Niebaum's files reveal Roenick himself was the IAD informant.

When Roman threatens to expose Niebaum in an open window, leaving him vulnerable to sniper fire, Niebaum admits that Roenick gave him wiretaps implicating three of Roman's squad mates, Helman, Allan, and Argento in the embezzlement scheme. When Niebaum confronted the guilty officers, he received a bribe from them to cover up their crimes while Roenick refused to take it, which led to his death. Niebaum says he does not know who the inside ringleader is, but that he has the taps corroborating the three officers' guilt. The same corrupt officers have secretly entered the room via the air vents under the pretext of being part of a team to take Roman out in case he started killing hostages; upon hearing Niebaum's confession, they open fire and kill Niebaum before he can reveal where he has hidden the wiretaps. Roman single-handedly fends them and the rest of his squad off, using the flashbangs he seized from the two officers in the previous failed breach.

Believing that Sabian and the police cannot resolve the situation, the FBI assume jurisdiction over the operation, cease negotiations, relieve Sabian of his command, and order a full breach. Sabian confronts Danny about the deaths, to which he reveals the executed hostage still alive and gagged. Sabian begins to believe in Roman's innocence and gives him a chance to prove his case: while the FBI and SWAT raid the building and rescue the hostages, Roman disguises himself as a SWAT member and escapes. Roman and Sabian proceed to Niebaum's house, but they cannot find the wiretaps. The police arrive and the corrupt officers enter the house, but they back off as Frost enters and tries to talk Roman down. Sabian observes Frost discreetly taking one of the guns, and realizes that Frost is the ringleader of the conspiracy and Roenick's killer.

In front of Frost, Sabian seemingly kills Roman and offers to destroy the evidence they have uncovered in return for a cut of Frost's take. Frost agrees and effectively makes a full admission to his and the other three officers' crimes. When Frost exits the house, he discovers that Roman survived the attack and used a police radio microphone to broadcast his confession to the police surrounding the area. Frost attempts to commit suicide, only to be foiled and arrested by the police. As Roman is loaded into an ambulance, Sabian gives his badge to him and leaves.


Production notes[edit]

The film is dedicated to J. T. Walsh, who died several months before the film's release.

The building used for the IAD office is 77 West Wacker Drive, the headquarters of United Airlines.

Factual basis[edit]

This film's conspiracy plotline is loosely based on the pension fund scandal in the St. Louis Police Department in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[2]


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Critical response[edit]

The film received a generally positive critical response and a score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Emanuel Levy of Variety wrote: "Teaming for the first time Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the two best actors of their generation, in perfectly fitting roles is a shrewd move and the best element of this fact-inspired but overwrought thriller."

Roger Ebert, in his Chicago Sun-Times review, calls The Negotiator "a triumph of style over story, and of acting over characters...Much of the movie simply consists of closeups of the two of them talking, but it's not simply dialogue because the actors make it more--invest it with conviction and urgency..."[3]

Mick LaSalle, in his less-than-enthusiastic review for the San Francisco Chronicle, had the most praise for Spacey's performance: "Kevin Spacey is the main reason to see "The Negotiator"...Spacey's special gift is his ability to make sanity look radiant...In "The Negotiator," as in "L.A. Confidential," he gives us a man uniquely able to accept, face and deal with the truth."[4]



External links[edit]

“The Negotiator” is a triumph of style over story, and of acting over characters. The movie's a thriller that really hums along, and I was intensely involved almost all the way. Only now, typing up my notes, do I fully realize how many formula elements it contains.

Consider. In the opening scene, a Chicago police negotiator named Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) calmly talks with a madman who has taken his own daughter hostage. The siege ends in victory, just as it does in every other cop movie. The next scene, of course, is the cops celebrating in a bar and watching coverage of themselves on TV. There's always one sorehead who makes a point of not celebrating the hero's triumph. Pay close attention to this character, who is the False Villain and is there to throw you off the track.


Next major sequence: Hero cop faces sudden disgrace. Is accused of embezzling funds from police pension fund. Is framed to look like a bad guy. Has no friends anymore. I don't have to tell you this always leads to the Gun and Badge scene, in which the hero drops the tools of his trade on the chief's desk.

The film now moves quickly toward its central notion, which is that one trained negotiator faces another one--meaning that men understand each other's strategies. Roman, facing jail as the victim of a frameup, takes hostages, including Niebaum (the late J.T. Walsh), an investigator looking into the missing pension funds. Roman says there is only one negotiator he will deal with--Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), a man who is not part of the department and unlikely to be in on the frame-up.
Until Sabian's arrival on the scene, “The Negotiator” has been assembled from off-the-shelf parts. But then the movie comes alive. There's a chemistry between the negotiators played by Jackson and Spacey; sometimes they seem to be communicating in code, or by the looks in their eyes.

The screenplay, by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, shows evidence of much research into the methods of negotiators, but it uses its knowledge only when it's needed. (I liked the little lecture on eye language.) And the direction by F. Gary Gray is disciplined, taut and smart: When he touches a base, he's confident enough to keep on running, instead of jumping up and down on it like a lot of directors would.

I don't know a lot about Gray, but I know he has a greater curiosity about the human element than a lot of men who make thrillers. His first film was “Friday” (1995), written by and starring Ice Cube in a character study of two homeboys hanging out in the neighborhood, engaged in intense people-watching and dope-smoking. His second film, “Set It Off” (1996) was about four black women who get involved in a bank robbery and who emerge as touching and convincing characters, vividly seen.

Now comes “The Negotiator,” which essentially consists of two men talking to one another, intercut with action. It could have dragged. It could have seemed locked into sets. It doesn't. Gray makes us care about the characters, to share some of Roman's frustration and rage, to get involved in the delicate process of negotiations. The plot makes good use of the fact that the Chicago policemen surrounding Danny Roman (who has taken his hostages in a West Wacker Drive high-rise) may also be in on the embezzlement. They want him dead. Spacey, as Sabian, is fighting for time before the hotheads send in the SWAT teams.


There also are quiet passages, in which some of the hostages begin to feel sympathy for Danny Roman. Walsh, in one of his last performances before his death earlier this year, is effective at concealing how much he might really know and what his involvement is. But Roman is right in suspecting that his loyal secretary might know where all the secrets are hidden and want to go home to her family in one piece.

Yes, there are cliches all through the movie, including the obligatory role of Roman's new wife (Regina Taylor), who wants him to stop taking the dangerous assignments. Yes, the TV news crews supply the usual breathless bulletins and obnoxious questions. Yes, the action scenes are unlikely (Roman uses the SWAT teams' own percussion bombs against them--but in a confined space wouldn't the percussion affect him as much as them?).

But “The Negotiator” works because it takes its conventional story and jacks it up several levels with Gray's craft and style. And because Jackson and Spacey are very good. Much of the movie simply consists of closeups of the two of them talking, but it's not simply dialogue because the actors make it more--invest it with conviction and urgency. Here is one of the year's most skillful thrillers.

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