Samuel L. Jackson stares down the Unthinkable

Unthinkable – 2010

Director – Gregor Jordan

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie Anne Moss, Brandon Routh, Stephen Root, Michael Sheen, Gil Bellows, Martin Donovan

Screenplay by Oren Moverman, Peter Woodward

There is a scene early in Unthinkable where special interrogator named “H”, played with a simple, elegant wisdom by  Samuel L. Jackson, interrupts a standard light torture interrogation performed by an army grunt.  He takes a specially formed pipe of some kind, sizes it up, and very casually begins to beat the holy hell out of the grunt in front of the prisoner he had been torturing  as a formal introduction.

If this had been anyone other than Samuel L. Jackson, I’d have been surprised.  This in no way diminishes the effectiveness of the scene, though.  Sam Jackson has made a career out of defying conventional methods and creating his own set of clichés.

Unthinkable starts with a United States Citizen video taping himself in front of 3 nuclear devices all set to go off at the same time in 3 different U.S. cities.  Changing his name from Youngen to Yusef, he renounces is citizenship.  He is subsequently captured by the military and held captive.  The FBI, brought into the party late, after a series of mistakes approach the house of “H,” unaware that a) he has diplomatic immunity, b) he will not give them any information about himself, and c) he is a class – A bad ass, and has the first round of agents detained.  He allows the second group in, but they get nothing from him.

Next thing you know, the FBI is working with the military to question the prisoner.  Enter Sam, and enter a series of absolutely incredible events, unheard of in the era of opposition to “mild” forms of torture like water boarding and playing obnoxious (you know, like Creed and Nickelback) rock music really loud.

The purpose of the film is to debate the effectiveness of torture.  Of course, in the form of a script, one can present their thesis with any amount means and ends that they want.  Co-writer Moverman, an Israeli who is based in New York City, co-wrote and directed 2009’s The Messenger. He received an Oscar Nomination for the script.  He continues good work here, along with co-writer Woodward.  No conclusions are made, but there are plenty of examples of decision points for both sides of the issue.

Moss, playing FBI agent Brody, does an excellent job of playing unwilling student to Jackson’s on the job mentoring.  Aging gracefully, she is at once able to show the authority of her position and the illusion that believers in the Geneva convention have allowed themselves all these years: that wearing the white hat will always win out.  Her position evolves, but to what point, I will leave for you to discover.  I can only say I went through the same debate with my conscience while watching, and I still don’t know if I have come to a conclusion.

This stuffy little Brit can play quite the frightening converted Muslim American.

 

As Yusef, Michael Sheen plays delightfully against type.  At this point, when he is not portraying Tony Blair, I fully expect him to play some other British stiff.  Here he is many things, and his reactions to the various methods are believable and somewhat frightening.

No one lays the smack down like Sam Jackson.

 

Jackson, of course, is the best thing about the film.  You understand that his methods are not only to get the information out of his subject in any way he can, but to motivate his biggest doubter’s conversion to be the greatest tool in this effort.  His mixture of common sense, cruelty and foresight are remarkably played here, to the point that one would believe what he is selling, at any price.

The biggest issue I have with the film is the lack of  controls within the structure of the interrogation.  Not only does Jackson have Moss’ Brody swaying back and forth, but people that he has worked with for years and his connections to the highest reaches to the executive branch are allowed to intervene and question his methods consistently.  It would be one thing if they were to pass it off as something pre-planned to mess with the prisoner, but they do not do this, and it weakens the effort slightly.

Overall, this film asks important questions, and wisely refuses to answer them for you.  It is not for the squeamish, so if you have strong sensibilities against torture, you probably would want to avoid this movie.  If one is motivated by the challenge of debate, in the same way of a film like Million Dollar Baby, this film is well worth your time.

(**** out of *****)

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Samuel L. Jackson stares down the Unthinkable

  1. So i watched this movie last night.

    Is it okay to torture a human being if many lives depend on it!?
    That is a really good question which have been asked several times before.

    Though i couldnt find answers to these questions, the movie was still a great watch.

    1) If the guy had everything planned to every little detail why not just blow up the entire shit from the beginning? He could also set the timer differently so he wouldnt have to sustain torture for so long time? Seemingly the guy know about US politics so he knew that there would be no negotiation.

    2) If Samuel L. Jackson was the only one to figure out there was a 4th bomb, why didnt he tell the others!?

    3) Why did the high ranking general with the perfect skin trout his mouth all the time??? 😉

    1. Good questions. To answer one of them, if he blows everything up at the beginning, then we have no movie. My guess is that they are going for the idea that all idealists want to make statements.

    2. The guy with the bombs seemed to be trying to make a point about who we are, or what we’re capable of. If it was about terror – then he could have set each bomb off one at a time and had the nation pretty much in a mass panic. But the point of the film revolved around just how far we would be willing to go in order to keep the peace. What would the hero do if faced with the decision to torture innocent children, or have entire cities annihilated?
      The Dark Knight has a short interrogation scene which goes along the same lines as what Samuel Jackson does in Unthinkable. And in TDK, the joker spends pretty much the whole film trying to prove the same kind of point that Unthinkable suggests – that even the best among us may fall.
      Except that in this movie she doesn’t quite take a complete fall, but just a stumble to her knees before getting back up and shining. I don’t think there are many of us who can make the decision she makes toward the end of the movie. Costly as that decision is, it may go some ways toward explaining why we’re hesitant to elect a woman for president. We want somebody who is willing to do the unthinkable in order to prevent somebody from doing something even more unthinkable.

      1. how is killing two children to save millions more unthinkable? this is why women shouldn’t have power

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