American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Package" is like one of those thrillers where you keep having to turn back to an earlier chapter to see if you missed something. It turns out you haven't. The movie's plot is so intricate that it seems there have to be loose ends, but there aren't any, and after it's over you rerun the events in your head, seeing at last how all the pieces fit together. Untangling the conspiracy is one of the story's pleasures.
The movie stars Gene Hackman in another one of those man-of-action roles he seems to play more convincingly than ever, now that he seems to be a little too old to be guys like this. Both he and his characters seem to have the benefit of experience. He's the leader of a crack U.S. military unit in charge of security at an American-Soviet nuclear disarmament summit. When security seems to have been compromised and a carload of VIPs is ambushed, Hackman gets a lot of the blame. He is rotated stateside as the escort for a military prisoner (played with irony and menace by Tommy Lee Jones).
He already has picked up some hints that nothing - especially not the violent ambush - was quite as it seemed. And in a run-in before he leaves Europe, he encounters a specialist in undercover espionage (John Heard) who gives him the creeps. Hackman doesn't like spies. He doesn't think they're professional, or quite honest, and the movie argues that he's right. We begin to witness small moments and snatches of conversation that suggest there's a conspiracy to undermine the peace talks - a conspiracy of spies from both sides. But by then Hackman is on a military aircraft to America with his prisoner.
And it is here, this early in the film, that the surprises start, as the plot turns in upon itself, giving us a series of people with shifting identities and allegiances. Who is the prisoner - really? When Hackman is attacked in the washroom of the airport in Washington, and the prisoner is spirited away, was that an escape, a kidnapping, or part of the same plot? Attempting to track down reality in a bewildering maze of possibilities, Hackman calls on one person he knows he can trust: his former wife (Joanna Cassidy), who now outranks him in the military.