There are not many movies released almost 60 years ago that are completely, totally and brutally relevant to the world we live in today. But Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is a film that is so of the moment it could come out this weekend and be considered timely, as today’s Balloon Boy Brouhaha reminds us.
In case you were spared the ridiculous nonsense today, Balloon Boy was 6 year old Falcon Heene, the son of a wacky weather experimenter/life on Mars conspiracy theorizer and participant in ABC’s Wife Swap (every single word of that is true, by the way), who was feared trapped in a weather observation balloon his dad made that ‘accidentally’ went soaring thousands of feet above Colorado. For a time there was hope that Falcon could be rescued, then when the balloon landed without the boy in the tiny basket everyone ‘feared’ that he had fallen out. Then it turned out the little fucker had been hiding in the attic all along.
But for four hours some idiot little kid sitting in the attic of his home ground the media to a halt. If you’re on Twitter I guarantee you saw hundreds of tweets about Balloon Boy, and about half the ‘trending topics’ were related to the situation. Fox and CNN went commercial-free to carry breathless video of the balloon careening high over Colorado. Every pundit was vying to be the first to announce that Falcon was either dead or safe, and you know that the graphics departments of the networks were feverishly working on getting appropriate images for either outcome.
And it was all nonsense. It wasn’t news. Even if the kid had fallen out of the balloon at 3,000 feet, it wouldn’t have been news. And it’s easy to say that this sort of crazy fluff is a product of our 24 hour news cycle if Billy Wilder hadn’t made a movie about in 1951.
Ace in the Hole may be Wilder’s most unsung masterpiece. Dark and mean, it’s an angry and cynical film without any of the lighter, heartwarming aspects of Wilder’s more mainstream films, like The Apartment and Sabrina. Wilder made the film after Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole makes Sunset look like a breezy comedy. And it’s all about Balloon Boy.
Except in the film Balloon Boy is Mine Man. Leo Minosa is a treasure hunting idiot trapped in a collapsed mine in a small town in New Mexico; this offers Charles Tatum (a brilliant Kirk Douglas) – who has been down on his luck after losing his newspaper job in New York and ending up in Albuquerque – a chance to get his mojo back. Tatum begins ruthlessly exploiting the situation (and the actually trapped man) but soon things blow up beyond his control. The mine becomes a mob scene, as gawkers and reporters and food vendors and well-wishers descend. Tatum tries to keep it all under control – all under his control, anyway – but he has no real concern for the well-being of Minosa until it might be too late. The film’s alternate title is The Big Carnival, and by the end that is literally what the mine site has turned into, a huge fair with games and fun and people spending lots and lots of money.
We were spared the fullness of Wilder’s cynical vision this time, but this isn’t the only case when Ace in the Hole has been brought to mind by stupid, callous news station exploitation. But all too often we look at these things and say to ourselves that the world’s getting worse and we’re getting more crass. It’s nice to have Wilder around to remind us that we’ve always been just this awful.
Buy Ace in the Hole on beautiful Criterion DVD by clicking here.