If you’re going to follow my lead and watch today’s film, do it with a group. If you watch it alone, the conversation afterwards might end up a bit stilted. (Or, come back here and share your thoughts with the rest of the class!)
Will definitely make you think.
Steven Younger, an American-born Muslim convert now known as Yusuf, has planted three homemade nuclear bombs in different cities across the US, set to go off in two days. It is up to FBI agent Helen Brody and a special CIA-trained interrogator known as “H” to question Yusuf and find the locations of the bombs before it’s too late. As the interrogations continue and the deadline draws nearer, which side is really in control?
Unthinkable is 24 for the stage, with its politics amplified a thousand-fold. The script by Englishman Peter Woodward – son of the late, great Edward Woodward and a sometime actor himself – is determined to ask its audience the Big Questions of the day: is torture acceptable under any circumstances? How far is too far? What is the value of one life against potentially millions of others? It asks these questions in a somewhat heavy-handed way, but it succeeds in its goal of making you think about the answers.
Despite the various background characters, this is really a three-hander between Brody, Yusuf and H, and director Gregor Jordan has got three fine actors to bring these archetypes to full-formed life. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Brody, the “good cop”. She’s the staunch defender of the Constitution, full of righteous indignation over H’s more urgent methods. Michael Sheen is Yusuf, the former Special Forces soldier who grew to hate the way his country treats the various Islamic countries it has invaded in the name of democracy. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson is H (and no, this is not a Steps crossover). H is a loving family man with a well of violence and cruelty in his soul.
As far as the political argument goes, H – along with the people who call him in – embodies the “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” super-Republican in the Bush/Cheney mould while Brody is the bleeding-heart liberal side of the coin. Yusuf is the one caught between these apparently incompatible viewpoints. He represents all the bad guys, real or perceived.
Leaving the politics aside for a minute, Unthinkable is a very powerfully-acted film. I compared it to 24 earlier, as it has a similar attitude towards the more aggressive interrogation methods as well as striving for the same level of tension and impending doom, not to mention that old Muslim-with-a-nuke chestnut that Jack Bauer went up against seemingly every other week. Woodward’s script is much more suited to maintaining that tension though, set as it is almost entirely in one location with a minimal cast and a definite (and fast approaching) time limit.
Bringing the politics back in for a minute, the end result is a bit clumsy and ham-fisted at times. Woodward seemingly goes out of his way to humanise Yusuf and make him as sympathetic as possible, while making the character an American convert avoids the visual impact of torturing an Arabic character. We never actually see Yusuf carrying out an act of violence either; when the film starts he has already been captured. The only people showing any cruelty are the questioners.
Gregor Jordan came out with a fantastic debut in his native Australia in 1999 called Two Hands, a low-budget, nicely sleazy little crime flick starring Bryan Brown and some kid named Heath Ledger. He followed that up with 2001’s fantastic war satire Buffalo Soldiers before returning to Oz two years later for the underperforming Ned Kelly biopic, again starring Ledger. After that he seemed to completely disappear from movies until the critical and commercial flop The Informers in 2009, then this a year later. Both of those last two never even blipped on my movie radar until I spotted Unthinkable on Netflix today. This film is shot rather straightfowardly, without any of the visual flair and excitement of his first two flicks. I suppose that could be because of the material. He’s not trying to tell you a story as much as just show you a story, letting Woodward’s screenplay do all the heavy lifting. He hasn’t lost his knack with actors however, coaxing three very committed performances from his leads.
The torture scenes are filmed very matter-of-factly, and are all the more harrowing because of it. If you can stomach the blood and the politics, then Unthinkable will give you considerable food for thought, and should spark plenty of conversation among those who see it.