Unthinkable – review
For a good many years the United States has lived beneath the shadow of What If, a shadow that became all the longer after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is a specter that has haunted the arts and media heavily but rarely do we get past the jingoism of Us versus Them. Rarely do we see beyond the veil of politics to the matter at hand and that is – if the worst were to happen, what would we do to stop it? Enter Unthinkable, a movie with good and known actors and a film that dares to ask and answer What If?
In a special terrorism unit of the FBI they are chasing after shadows and ghosts until one of these ghosts appears in the center of a plot to detonate three nuclear bombs in American cities. Embarrassed at having let this man, an ex-U.S. military bomb expert turned radical, slip through their fingers the group quickly mobilizes to find out what is going on. When they start pulling in anyone that might know the man they happen to target someone protected by the CIA and who knows more than the FBI is authorized to hear. There is a break though when the terrorist seemingly surrenders himself in the middle of a packed mall but it is when he is taken into custody that the real games begin. It is here where the CIA spook returns and the FBI learns that he is a very dangerous interrogation expert who will stop at nothing to find out where the bombs are. But the lead FBI agent must ask herself if the truth is worth the dangerous road that her superiors are willing to take in order to save the millions of lives the terrorist has put at risk.
For many, the deeper core of the film – questioning how far we would allow our ‘interrogation’ tactics to go and what we are willing to do to save lives – will be very cut and dried, and I can see that. This film works on two levels and both are very well done. First we get a decent thriller where we are waiting to see whether or not the ‘protagonists’ will find and diffuse the bombs before it is too late or whether the worst will come to pass. With that there is the notion that in order to fight true terrorism takes acts of terrorism. There are some very heavy echoes of things that have actually come to pass in recent American history and our treatment of terror suspects and the film works best when it is playing in that field. The film is certainly strongest when Samuel Jackson as the interrogator is pitting his wits against an impassioned terrorist. This is where the film really takes on its power.
Sam Jackson is easily the best thing about this film though because we get to see him at his scariest and he plays his character well enough that while his acts may be monstrous, he is not a monster, he is only willing to do what has to be done to stop another monster. The film does very well to slowly ratchet up the tension and as the torture escalates so too does the line between what we may and may not be willing to do become blurrier. It is this dance, between what is right and what is good that the lines most of us live by become ideals that may not always be reasonable. The film boasts pretty good performances overall and this is a very well put together cast. What it feels like is a play that worked as a movie because this can easily be done as a very small theatrical presentation and would have just as much power.
Sometimes the film plays its hand a little too heavily though. The special agent who is our voice of reason and conscience (Carrie-Ann Moss) is generally good but some of the things they make her act on or say seem naïve for an FBI agent. Just as some of the ‘real life’ moments where the agents go to track down a lead seems a bit silly in how such a highly dangerous situation is handled.
This is not a subtle film. Not at all. But it isn’t meant to be. This is meant to be the great What If, and as such it works wonderfully. There are some hammy moments. There are some manipulative moments. Overall though this is a strong thriller with much to offer, not the least of which being a solid ending. This won’t be for everyone as the politics is heavy here and the torture gets very intense but overall this is a very good film that sits happily on the shelf of second tier films that come out each year.
7.5 out of 10