Like last year’s smash hit The Sixth Sense, Frequency is a human drama told against a paranormal backdrop, a story of two characters a generation apart in troubling circumstances who share a mysterious bond and who help one another in different ways.
Yet, where The Sixth Sense was overshadowed by the specter of death, Frequency is about life. This is a film about the legacy of fatherhood and the inheritance of sonship, about the unbreakable connection and the unbridgeable gap between one generation and the next. It is a celebration of masculinity, but it contemplates how men relate to women as an index of their manhood. This film believes in family; in the strength of fathers and the nurturing of mothers — qualities symbolized by the uniforms of firefighters or policemen and nurses. It also believes in baseball, especially the Amazin’ Mets of the ’69 Series. Most of all, Frequency touches upon the profound human longing to escape the constraints of time, to see the wrongs and mistakes of the past somehow set right, redeemed.
At the heart of the movie is a premise so simple, yet so powerful, that it could practically carry the story by itself: A Queens cop whose firefighter father died heroically thirty years earlier has an unexpected and mysterious opportunity to communicate across time with his father on the eve of the fatal fire. John Sullivan (James Caviezel) was only six years old in 1969 when his father Frank (Dennis Quaid) died in a warehouse blaze, and his father’s death casts a long shadow over John’s life; he drinks too much, and his girlfriend has just left him. Then one day he happens to pull his father’s old ham radio set out of storage, begins fiddling with it, and, by a freak convergence of northern lights, sunspots, and one heck of a plot device, suddenly he and his father, sitting thirty years apart in the same chair at the same desk with the same transmitter in their hands, are communicating across a distance of decades.
I’ve watched countless movie scenes in which characters must establish to each other and to themselves that something extraordinary is happening. This film has one of the neatest such sequences I’ve ever seen. The way the facts come out is clean and persuasive, and the emotional responses are note-perfect. And, of course, John proceeds to do exactly what any of us, no matter how many time-travel movies we’ve seen, would do under the circumstances: He tells his father about the next day’s fateful fire — and how to survive it. The way the film resolves the consequences of this act is as intriguing as it is satisfying.
The story then falls back on some standard-issue complications in the time-travel type of plot (though technically no one does any time-travelling in Frequency, except of course in the everyday sense, pointed out by MacPhee in The Dark Tower, that we are all "travelling into the future at the rate of sixty minutes an hour whether you like it or not"). John and Frank have altered history, and something has gone horribly awry. Now father and son must collaborate across time to stop a serial killer who’s inadvertently been given a new lease on life. This rather conventional thriller subplot essentially gives shape to the second half of the film; it’s handled smartly and competently, and the time-bending rules of this universe, although not clearly worked out, have some clever applications.
Why is the idea of time travel, alternate time lines, and changing the past so compelling? Roger Ebert in his Frequency review expresses something of it when he observes, "There must be something universal about our desire to conquer time, which in the end conquers us." But it’s more than that. God, the saints tell us, has placed eternity in our hearts. We aren’t satisfied to be bound by time; we long to escape from its constraints, to see the tragedies wrought in time undone; to see all things work together for good.
This is a desire which finds its ultimate satisfaction only in eternity, where every wrong is righted and every tear wiped from our eyes. But even in this life there can be partial realizations (as, for example, on those occasions when a quarrel leads to deeper reconciliation and harmony); and in fiction the device of time travel gives us a new way, an imaginative and metaphorical way, to explore this desire of our hearts. Even though there is no such thing as time travel, it appeals to something in us which is very real, and can illuminate not only our present condition but also our eternal destiny.
Frequency does all this about as well as any time-bending tale I know of. From the outset we have every confidence that things will work out for our heroes, not only because a sentimental Hollywood thriller of this sort has to deliver a happy ending, but also because we feel that such an extraordinary set of circumstances must be providential; that the universe must in some way be on their side; as indeed it is on our side.
Some critics have raised questions about the logic of the film’s time-tweaking. Having watched it twice, I acknowledge that there seem to be inconsistencies in the way events in the past make their effects felt in the future. (I say "seem to be" because experience has taught me that an explanation can be mounted for just about any apparent discrepancy. Of course, it might be argued that the mere fact that such an explanation is necessary in the first place is itself a flaw in the film; which it may be. But I’d have to hear the explanation before coming to a final conclusion.) And the fact that John Sullivan always retains his memories of previous timelines as well as gaining new memories from the new continuity (while others don’t) is obviously a huge creative liberty.
But I don’t care. It works well enough to make the movie work for me. Most importantly, the instantly persuasive rapport between Dennis Quaid and James Caviezel (who worked together before in Any Given Sunday and Wyatt Earp) makes their relationship real and involving; and, because I believe in their relationship, I accept the circumstances in which they find themselves. It’s not quite as well-crafted as The Sixth Sense, but Frequency is not only just as heartfelt, it’s more entertaining, and the themes it deals with are more important, more fundamental to the human condition. It’s a great movie to see with your father or (assuming he’s old enough) your son.
"2000: The Year in Reviews" (including The Year’s Best)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.