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.
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.
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 *****)