By now, America’s bored with torture. By now, America’s seen video footage of waterboarding, photos of abused inmates at Abu Ghraib and tales of torture at Guantanamo Bay. America’s seen the debates on C-Span and Fox; America’s seen eight seasons of Jack Bauer shock people with frayed lamp cords, shooting their kneecaps and pretending to murder their families.
After eight years of 24, Unthinkable, a drama about the brutal interrogation of a subject who claims he’s planted three nuclear bombs in the United States, arrives to the torture-party a bit late. These are arguments we’ve already had.
Unthinkable has an interesting cast, with Michael Sheen as the captured terrorist, playing a wide range of torture-undergoing emotions, and Samuel L. Jackson, as the unhinged interrogator, playing a predictable range of Samuel L. Jackson emotions.
But at least at first, the dialogue sags with old pro-torture/anti-torture talking points, making for some seriously lame lines.
“If those bombs go off, there will be no f---ing constitution!” Jackson yells.
Such creaky dialogue is compounded by the fact that torture isn’t entertaining to watch. It takes an odd sort of sadist to watch a finger being lopped off or a suspect being beaten.
Yet toward the end, as the situation grows more dire and the measures grow more desperate, the direct-to- DVD movie goes beyond its obvious TV inspiration. Unthinkable sets about dealing with questions to which 24 only gave a cursory nod.
What happens when the guy we’re interrogating just decides to lie? What moral price do we pay when we refuse to draw a line about torture? What price do we pay when we actually do draw that line?
By then, the drama and acting and sheer gravity of the situation drowns out the clichéd talking points. they’re still there, we just no longer notice them.
In the final third, Unthinkable gets gutsy. It doesn’t take sides. It’s willing to work on the assumption that all arguments from all sides of the torture debate are basically correct, even when they seem to contradict. there are no easy answers. Nobody’s “right.”
The results, naturally, are explosive.