Unthinkable (with spoiler)

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” ― George OrwellAnimal Farm

Unthinkable is a game of chicken in movie format.  It weighs up who is prepared to push the boundaries furthest in a battle of nerves between the “state” and the “terrorist”, aiming for the greatest shock factor and, ultimately, to go places no civilised person would consider acceptable: hence, the unthinkable.

I use inverted commas because movies, even superhero movies, are seldom simply a straightforward contest between good and evil, the good guy against the villain; they have layers of complication and ambiguity precisely because audiences are nowadays more sophisticated and demand greater truth and realism, and a detailed blow-by-blow analysis of the serious dilemmas of modern life.

The key question we are asked in this “gritty” film (if you deem it to be showing “courage and resolve”) is whether one side holds the moral high ground or whether this is a race to the bottom at the expense of civilisation, or whether Orwell’s words (see quote above) have come back to haunt us and that we are no better than the people we call “terrorists.”  So What is the debate here, you ask?  I’ll characterise it thus:

How far should a civilised society go to extract information from a suspect in order to save innocent lives?

I will return to this question in due course, and also, since this is by definition a form of “entertainment,” the opinion of one blogger that “Unthinkable is Unwatchable.”

The “bad guy” in this case is an all-American boy and nuclear expert converted to Islam (Steven Arthur Younger AKA Yusuf Atta Mohammed) and played by a distinguished British actor (Michael Sheen.)   Acting alone, Mohammed/Younger has acquired nuclear material and built, so he claims, three nuclear weapons, situated in three American cities and timed to explode simultaneously.

He has been captured, apparently at his own behest, by the FBI and is being held in sub-zero temperatures while being hosed with icy water, deprived of sleep, white noise etc. – these being one of the more acceptable “enhanced interrogation techniques” to the security services.

Ah yes, the “good guys.”  Mr Younger is being held at the combined invitation of all the American security agencies and military in an interrogation unit housed in what appears to be a warehouse on a base.  The general in charge of the operation then invites some special guests to observe and, in due course, assist and eventually take fully responsibility for the process of extracting from Younger the critical information – where are the nukes? – before they kill 50 million Americans.

Chief among these are Samuel L Jackson‘s professional torturer and family man Henry Harold “H” Humphries (contrived so we think it is an assumed name) under protection but rolled out for this special occasion.  Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Ann Moss) is, by comparison, the yin to Humphries’ yang.  She is a decent and ethical interrogator, the one who plays by the books but gets results without breaking the Geneva Convention. There are other players, but these two represent polar opposites in this debate – and are thus mouthpieces.

What follows is a dehumanising game of cat and mouse, in which the mouse has already devised his sadomasochistic game plan, and the cat apparently falls into each trap one by one.  Trap one is by going steadily through a range of torture techniques that certainly don’t feature in the approved manual, justifying them by making said American suspect stateless and by finding a loophole in the human rights legislation in order to make him no better than an animal.  Thinking back to Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition accusations, America’s treatment of terrorist suspects certainly renders the country guilty of gross hypocrisy at the very least.

Trap two are the torture techniques themselves, including but not restricted to forcible removal of fingernails; lopping off fingers and, by implication, other extremities; water boarding (ie. simulated drowning); electric shocks; and drilling teeth.  I half expected the rack and the Spanish donkey to make appearances, though the techniques used are more than gruesome enough.  Ah, but they get worse:  murdering the suspect’s wife before his very eyes and threatening to kill his children too.  Is that beyond the pale if it gets results?

Trap three is this:  I heard indirectly that if it hasn’t worked within the first 20 minutes torture never will work and that suspects will say anything you want to stop their bodies being mutilated, so torture does not uncover the truth.  At least this argument is voiced, but it does not stop the torture, nor does it stop the top brass following up the information given (planted) by the terrorist, at no little cost (53 people die in a shopping mall thanks to a neat trick to prove he is serious.)

I’ve probably made this sound at least someway convincing, though frankly if you want a truly authentic terrorist bombing movie I’d recommend Eye In The Sky.  There’s no doubt that Unthinkable has shock value, and providing you suspend disbelief will probably come across as a film you want to watch to the end.

Unfortunately, the concept is flawed.  To begin with, I don’t believe for one moment that a man would set nuclear bombs to explode in three US cities then calmly allow himself to be captured and tortured before revealing at least some information about said devices.  The probability any one person has the wherewithal to know how to put together and trigger nuclear devices, let alone import radioactive substances I’d put at zero: this is not a possible scenario.

Younger finally gets his hands on a gun and eventually shoots himself – but then he could have done that after placing the bombs or at any other time, or even quietly put his family on a plane and gone somewhere safe.  What benefit does that hold for him to go through the pain and misery, since nobody would find out about the torture – unless it was just to give the agencies a thorough runaround?

Second, I wouldn’t mind so much if the arguments were set out such that a debate on the nature of torture could be conducted sensibly, but I saw little evidence to demonstrate that conventional interrogation without torture was even given a chance before nasty things started happening.  Moss’s Brody is portrayed as a hand-wringing agoniser, compared to Jackson’s tough-nut H, but she is given no force or substantive arguments in the film, which unjustly skews the debate in favour of the torturers.

Ah, but it’s the limited time frame that means we cut short the preliminaries and go straight to the physical assaults, I hear you say.  True, but bearing in mind the limitations to the effectiveness of torture I’d have thought greater subtlety and use of psychological profiling might have been more effective.

Third, there are a host of missed opportunities here, foresaken in order to insert twists and turns in the manner of a conventional Hollywood thriller.  Most notable is the fascination about the nature of the relationship between the victim and the torturer. The play Guantamano was terrifying from that point of view. By making Samuel Johnson psychotic a lot of potential intimacy and struggle was lost; his madness gave him a sense of him not being responsible. Here, SLJ’s H seems to treat it as part of the job, albeit with a gleam of sadistic satisfaction in his eyes, where Sheen’s Younger looks terrified for the most part.  Never do we gain insight into their respective mindsets – they are merely pawns in the writer’s tool bag.

But none of the is relevant anyway since the suspect tells of three devices but has a fourth tucked away that will explode anyway, though having kept this piece of information to himself you wonder why the terrorist would have mentioned under extreme pressure about the others?

In short, the film is a thriller first and feels no compunction in cheating the viewer along the way to justify American torture of suspects.  But then, the studio probably knew that this was a moral mess and was destined to cause considerable controversy, and worse – might well appeal to those lusting after torture porn.  As stated in Wikipedia: “It was released direct-to-video on June 14, 2010.”  

So at the end nobody comes out of this rather nasty 2 hours smelling of roses, certainly not the US authorities.  My view remains that any concession to standards below the human rights we would offer our own citizens demonstrates that terrorists have won.  If conventional courts and police investigations can find evidence of guilt to justify a conviction, why is torture necessary?

Surely all human beings should be accorded the same dignities described in the Geneva Conventions, regardless of their status and the actions of which they have been charged (but not convicted, typically.). The appellation “terrorist” is a convenient label to blacklist people on the assumption they will conduct worse acts of terror, but as we all know the legal system acts only in hindsight for acts previously perpetrated.  This is war, say the generals, conducted by other means, and this allows licence to fight it by any means necessary.  To me this is unthinkable.

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