Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Unthinkable: Grade B

Unthinkable (2010)

Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Ann Moss, Michael Sheen. Director Gregor Jordan.

I give this movie a weak B because it has the courage to address a difficult issue: American use of torture to interrogate terrorists. Is it wrong or necessary? The terrorist is domestic, an American Muslim (naturally) who has planted three nuclear bombs in three American cities. They will all go off in six days unless the US Government agrees to withdraw from “all Muslim countries” immediately. (Why that demand, and how it could be satisfied in time are glossed over). He is quickly captured. Apparently he wanted to be captured, but his reasons are unclear. “To make a point” is the best we can surmise.

Jackson is “H.”, some kind of ex-government black ops guy who specializes in torture. He is called in to do the dirty deed, and he does it with flair, in a great acting performance. His emotions are extremely well played as he alternately cuts off fingers then despairs for his decency. Moss is an FBI officer who is brought in for reasons unexplained by the story, but her character serves the purpose of expressing the average person's conscience. She is outraged and objects to the treatment given the prisoner, but she doesn’t do anything about it, because, well, those bombs are ticking.

So the simpleminded drama is a variation on the Dick Cheney formula: if there is a 1% chance of a terrorist attack like this, they you must take it 100% seriously and do everything possible, including (judging from history), ignoring your principles, values, and humanity to engage in torture. Moss’s character makes the liberal arguments: torture doesn’t work, the subject will tell you anything, it is dehumanizing, it is illegal, etc., etc. “H.” says only, “We have three hours left. What do you propose instead?”

It is a shame that the movie ends without resolving this conundrum. We are left to wonder: were the bombs found in time? Was the prisoner telling the truth? Does torture work? It seems like the filmmakers were too chicken to take a stand, or maybe they decided that the question is unanswerable, but I found the ending weak, unimaginative, and disappointing.

Only Jackson’s acting is worth watching. All the other actors are wooden, speaking predictable lines with predictable expressions, none of them convincing. Jackson however creates a true persona on the screen, creepy, but in a human way that the audience can connect to. It’s not a great movie, but it raises an important question that makes it worth seeing.

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