Film: No Way Out

Is it a crime of passion, or an act of treason?

No Way Out (1987) is a thriller starring Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young, about a U.S. Naval officer who is falsely accused of murder. The supporting cast includes Will Patton, Howard Duff, George Dzundza, Jason Bernard, Fred Thompson, Iman and Brad Pitt in his first film role.

Lt. Cmdr Tom Farrell (Costner) is on a Pentagon tour after some at-sea heroics bring him to the attention of Defense Secretary David Brice (Hackman), who shows an interest in grooming the up-and-coming officer for things political. His mistress, Susan Atwell (Young), is attracted to Farrell in other ways. When Brice discovers that she is cheating —but not with whom — he flies into a rage and accidentally murders her.

Brice's aide, Scott Pritchard (Patton), decides that the best way to cover up the affair is to blame Atwell's death on a Soviet mole, stirring up a hornet's nest in the Pentagon as they try to discover his identity. Their best clue is a damaged Polaroid photograph that is given to the image processing team to enhance. Naturally, Farrell knows the photo is of him, which is ironic considering he's been appointed the investigator of the murder. He thus sets out in a desperate race against time and Pritchard's growing suspicions to prove that Brice is the real killer so that he'll call off the investigation. But what if there really is a mole?

A remake of the 1948 Film Noir The Big Clock. Not to be confused with the 1950 film starring Sidney Poitier.

SPOILER WARNING: The trope list below contains a large number of plot spoilers. Read at your own risk.


This movie contains examples of:

  • Accent Relapse: During his interrogation, Farrell apologizes for his poor Russian since he's been speaking English for most of his life.
  • Artistic License Geography: At one point, Farrell eludes his pursuers by taking the Metro as it goes through Georgetown. Very exciting and dramatic, except that the Metrorail system doesn't go anywhere near Georgetown. The Metro station pictured in the movie looks nothing like the actual Metro stations, either.
  • Auto Erotica: Farrell and Atwell have sex in the back of a limo.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Pritchard sends Those Two Bad Guys after Nina because she's the only one (besides Farrell) who can connect Brice to Atwell. Farrell is able to figure this out and gets to her shop in time to warn her to flee. Subverted, however, because the real reason, which we don't find out till the end, is because she's also the only one who knows Farrell was seeing Atwell, and he's afraid Nina will reveal this, which will lead to him being unmasked as The Mole.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Zig Zagged Trope. Farrell is vindicated, Brice gets away with the murder, and the "mole" is conveniently dead. Farrell is the one in the picture, however, and his involvement in the scandal is likely to permanently end any hope of career advancement. Oh, and the woman he was falling in love with (maybe) is dead. Of course, since he is the mole, this is actually a good thing for the United States.
  • Bury Your Gays: The only gay character in the story commits suicide after having his unrequited love rejected.
  • Casting Gag: In 1987, Kevin Costner was the archetypal All-American Good Ol' Boy. This made him being a Russian spy who could speak flawless Russian that much more of a shocker to audiences.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Pritchard has apparently been harboring an Unrequited Love for Brice and is obsessed with protecting his reputation at any cost in the hopes that this will lead to Brice accepting his advances. When Brice displays disgust instead, Pritchard kills himself.
  • Deep Cover Agent: The Soviets are suspected to have a deep cover mole in the Pentagon, and this is what helps set off the Witch Hunt. As it turns out, the suspicions are correct.
  • Detective Mole: It turns out that all three main characters involved in the investigation are guilty of a crime.
  • Detective Patsy: Subverted — Farrell knows that he is a patsy because he knows who really killed Atwell.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Schiller, Farrell's landlord, was actually his Soviet handler.
  • Enhance Button: An entire office of the Pentagon is turned into a photo enhancement lab to reconstruct the damaged Polaroid that supposedly reveals the identity of The Mole. The estimate of how long this will take fuels Farrell's Race Against the Clock.
  • Framing Device: The movie begins and ends with Farrell being interrogated.
  • Framing the Guilty Party:
    • Pritchard tries to frame a nonexistent mole to cover up Brice's involvement in Atwell's death. What he doesn't realize is that there is, in fact, a mole, and the investigation inadvertently succeeds in discrediting him.
    • Pritchard ends up taking the fall for Atwell's murder, a crime that he is innocent of. However, he does commit numerous crimes (including a separate murder) in the process of trying to cover it up.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: When the Enhance Button technician reveals Farrell's secret to Pritchard, this exact exchange takes place, followed immediately by You Have Outlived Your Usefulness.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: The core of the plot is that Farrell is appointed the lead investigator of a Witch Hunt for a mole that he knows will end up targeting himself.
  • Karma Houdini: Brice gets away scot free for Atwell's murder. Pritchard is dead and Farrell's career is destroyed, so there's nobody left to reveal his involvement in the scandal.
  • The Killer In Me: Farrell isn't guilty of the murder, but he is guilty of something else. (For one, a sex scandal.)
  • The Mole: Zig Zagged Trope, see Red Herring Mole.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: At the party where Atwell and Farrell first meet, she tries to get her cigarette lit by another man, but when he's too distracted to light it, she snaps, "If you want to look at my breasts, you should grow a few inches."
  • Naked in Mink: Pulled off by a drunken Atwell in an apartment hallway.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Farrell, in an attempt to buy time, tells the Enhance Button technician that he's the one in the photo. Said tech gets a conscience attack and tells Pritchard, blowing Farrell's cover and getting himself shot for his trouble.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Averted - Farrell takes a knife wound to the forearm courtesy of some thugs and is impaired by it, becoming visibly lightheaded due to blood loss in the Pentagon hallway.
  • Opera Gloves: Atwell is wearing opera gloves in the party scene where she meets Farrell.
  • Pretty in Mink: Atwell wears a sumptuous fur coat while leaving the party where she and Farrell meet; later in the apartment hallway, it's all she's wearing.
  • Race Against the Clock: Thanks to the agonizingly slow Enhance Button, Farrell knows almost to the second how long he has before he's implicated. He manages to buy himself some extra time by convincing the guy running it to mess with the parameters.
  • Red Herring Mole: The Witch Hunt trumped up by Pritchard is aimed at uncovering a fictitious Soviet mole to pin Atwell's murder on. It's subverted because there actually is a mole, and that mole was seeing Atwell.
  • Red Scare: The 80's Pentagon is of course ripe for this; Pritchard specifically discusses how they've long suspected that there is a mole, so it'll be conveniently believable as a cover story.
  • The Remake: Of 1948 film The Big Clock, starring Ray Milland, which in turn was based on the novel of the same name by poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. The Big Clock is set in the New York publishing world rather than the Pentagon, and thus does not include the Soviet mole part of the plot, but the rest of the plot points are basically the same.
  • Smithical Marriage: Parodied and lampshaded — Farrell and Atwell go by "Smyth" during their romantic getaway.
  • Something Else Also Rises: After Farrell and Atwell begin getting it on in the back of the limo, the camera cuts to the Washington Monument.
  • Stairwell Chase: Farrell vs. Pritchard's goons. One goon gets a fire extinguisher in the face, while Farrell gets a knife wound.
  • Stocking Filler: Atwell in the limo sex scene, with her black stockings being peeled off by Farrell.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: The two Mooks who work for Pritchard.
  • Twist Ending: Turns out, Commander Farrell actually is a Soviet mole. Pritchard unknowingly walks straight into the truth while imagining a cover story.
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Tied to the Enhance Button, of course.
  • Witch Hunt: How do you get the entire Pentagon turned upside down in the hunt for a nonexistent killer? Call it a Red Scare!
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Pritchard executes the Enhance Button technician in cold blood once he reveals the identity of the supposed "killer". Since this also leads him to realize Farrell's role and likely intent, he next sends his goons after the latter.