Tag Archives: straight to dvd

Unthinkable (2010)

28 Oct

…Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Torture.

Hollywood’s attempts to address its nation’s quixotic ‘war on terror’ have met with lopsided results – for every ‘The Hurt Locker’ there is a rash of ‘Renditions ’, ‘Brothers’ or ‘Lions for Lambs’. In an industry that seems congenitally incapable of sincerity at times, its forays into a real world with real consequences have often been spectacularly crass. A good case in point is this straight-to-DVD offering, which fancies itself a ‘psychological thriller’ addressing ‘contemporary concerns’.

H (Samuel L. Jackson) is a black-ops interrogator indentured to the shadier elements of the intelligence community – possibly because he has committed war crimes. He gruesomely tortures a home-grown terror suspect (Michael Sheen) who claims to have planted nuclear bombs in three American cities. By-the-book FBI agent Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) is appalled by what she sees and indulges in a protracted bout of hand-wringing over this flagrant breach of international law. Brody and H argue over the efficacy of using torture, with Brody maintaining that any information gained under such conditions is inherently unreliable and H insisting that it is a necessary evil to protect American citizens.

This ‘brave, uncompromising’ look at the murky world of national security is in reality a TV movie with pretensions, a plodding ‘race against time’ thriller dressed up in esoteric terminology and cutting-edge finery. Jackson’s character is a mixture of Jack Bauer and Axel Foley, a wise-cracking psychopath we’re encouraged to sympathize with and root for. The contrast with Moss’s character couldn’t be starker. While H is a family man, Brody is a childless, unmarried career woman with a chilly demeanour – although we’re told that, like every career woman, her biological imperatives will win out in the end. Brody is portrayed as an uptight obstruction for her insistence on invoking the Geneva Convention at every turn while the maverick H is taking care of business. This dynamic essentially plays like a mismatched pairing in a cop movie, which would be fine if it wasn’t being used in such a grave context. It seriously undermines the film’s already shaky credibility that the characters fall into this archetypal ‘good cop, bad cop’ double act. Sheen bleeds and screams his way through the film as the ‘all-American’ Jihadist, but no attempt is made to provide any dimension to his character, to explain his motivation beyond the usual ideological bluster. This would have been a more interesting film than the one presented, a character study to which the gifted Sheen would have been better suited.

A noteworthy feature of ‘Unthinkable’ is the relative absence of middle-eastern characters. It shies away from making the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and young, disenchanted Muslim men. If they really had been committed to dealing with the issue in a frank, realistic way, the filmmakers surely wouldn’t have baulked at the idea of featuring such a character. Their bravery obviously only extended so far. ‘Unthinkable’ may believe it is a dispassionate attempt to encourage debate and address the issues in an even-handed manner, but it is nothing of the sort; the narrative arc leaves little doubt as to where its sympathies lie. Brody is there to present the illusion of balance, but its opinions are so firmly fixed and the dialogue so perfunctory that it feels like a 1950s propaganda piece. I kept waiting for it to pull back and reveal some deeper insight, but no such revelation occurred.

‘Unthinkable’ is blind to the intricacies of its subject matter, peddling easy answers and presenting a worldview as hopelessly atavistic as the zealots it sets out to decry, plumbing new depths of apologia and chauvinism. Its ultimate message is that torture works, that the ends justify the means, long-term consequences be damned. H is depicted as a man of action hamstrung by politically correct Quislings, a true patriot desperate to save his countrymen by any means. This is a shameful glorification of American Exceptionalism; a concession to those who believe that global treaties are an obstacle to domestic security, that the checks and balances preventing the abuse of executive power can be overridden on a whim. It’s sad when issues as pressing and complex as this are reduced to fodder for formulaic, ham-fisted thrillers. I have no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld would heartily approve.

Coming Soon - Blair: The Breakdown Years