Psychological thriller ‘Unthinkable’ contemplates torture and ticking bombs

November 20, 2012

Special Agent Helen Brody and her Los Angeles-based FBI counterterrorism team have spent the past nine months keeping tabs on area Muslims whom some believe to have violent inclinations. They have yet to find any actual evidence of terrorism.

Suddenly, every television channel on the dial begins showing pictures of Steven Arthur Younger and three separate rooms. Younger, a white-skinned American man of no particular physical distinction, is reported to be armed and extremely dangerous; the public is asked to report any sighting immediately.

The next day, Brody’s boss, Assistant Director Jack Saunders, reassigns her team to an abandoned, isolated high school that has been repurposed as a secretive Army base. Saunders, Brody and her agents are then shown a video recorded by Younger.

Younger identifies himself as a devout Muslim. He has hidden three nuclear bombs in three American cities, he says. Unless his demands are met, the bombs will detonate in a few days, at noon Pacific time on Friday, Oct. 21. Younger makes no demands, instead proceeding to show three nuclear bombs in three locations. He displays and describes the bombs in great detail. He does not identify the specific locations or cities in which he has placed the nuclear devices.

The public has been shown still frames of the three rooms from the video, all scrubbed of any sign of a bomb. Brody’s team must find the weapons before they explode.

There is every reason to take Younger’s threat seriously. He is a military-trained bomb disarmament expert specializing in nuclear weapons who has served in Iraq. The Iranian government, in a preventive measure intended to stave off retaliatory bombing, has covertly informed the American government that it gave Younger $20 million to obtain weapons-grade radioactive material from Russia.

Russian authorities have told Americans that one of its facilities is missing 15 to 18 pounds of nuclear weapons fuel — enough to make bombs capable of killing 10 million people. Russia and Iran say they don’t know where Younger, the nuclear material or the $20 million have gone.

Brody’s agents get to work, but she herself is sidetracked by a parallel investigation. It turns out that the Army is holding Younger, who now calls himself Youssef, in a cell inside the abandoned high school. In fact, that’s why a mysterious man named H and his government handler, Charlie Thompson, were briefed along with Brody’s team. H practices extraordinary interrogation methods, and he demands that Brody assist him.

Brody is horrified by the apparently illegal physical and mental stress that the military has ineffectively been using on Youssef in an attempt to elicit the locations of the bombs. But her nightmare only deepens after she learns that H’s specialty is torturing and breaking prisoners. His methods, like the military’s, violate every tenet of the American justice system. Is breaking the Constitution worth saving 10 million lives? Could the U.S. Constitution survive one nuclear detonation, let alone three?

That’s the setup of Unthinkable, a 2010 film directed by Australian-born Gregor Jordan and scripted by British actor-writer Peter Woodward. This 97-minute movie, which I stumbled across recently after never having heard of it, is compulsively watchable. It’s far from perfect, but I do think it’s a film that every person who cares about national security, the rule of law, and civil or human rights should see.

Although the movie may seem complicated, based on my description, everything is straightforward and believable. And at its heart, the film boils down to three characters: Brody, H and Yousseff. They are played, respectively, by Carrie-Anne Moss (whom I had only seen before in the Matrix movies and the unforgettable Memento); Samuel L. Jackson (famous for being a badass and a Jedi, among other things); and Michael Sheen (a vampire bigwig in the Twilight movies as well as a playboy journalist in the outstanding Frost/Nixon).

The leads are fantastic, and the backing cast is just as good. Top supporting performances are turned in by Martin Donovan as Saunders, Stephen Root as H’s handler, Gil Bellows as Vincent (Brody’s top agent), Holmes Osborne and Michael Rose as high-ranking military officers, and Randy Oglesby as a civilian who seems to be serving as proxy for the president.

Saunders and Vincent don’t have many lines, but their working relationships with Brody are credible from the word go. The interplay between Brody and Saunders in particular works wonderfully.

He’s as uncomfortable with the torture as she is. Still, Saunders is an FBI man through and through, and he reminds Brody — quietly for the most part, firmly when needed — that she must stay on task.

While I credit Unthinkable for taking a serious look at torture, I’m not sure it goes quite far enough. We do get a few gruesome glimpses of Yousseff being tortured as well as additional views of his wracked body when H takes break from inflicting pain. Everyone will probably draw the line differently, but for my part I thought the film should have shown just a little more of the horror to which Yousseff is subjected.

Still, as the deadline draws closer, H pushes every possible limit. In doing so, he horrifies not just Brody but nearly all of the hardened patriots who have front-row seats to Yousseff and H’s theatre of pain.

The movie’s resolution is both fascinating and frustrating. One of the main characters walks out of the chamber of horrors and back into daylight. Potential terror and torture victims, both on camera and off, appear to be safe…for the moment. But how long will that safety last? Will the threat to national security ever be made public? Will H and his government enablers ever be prosecuted for their many serious violations of the Constitution and of human rights?

We aren’t told. (The Internet Movie Database, interestingly, reports that an alternative ending was filmed and included on the DVD.) And while I did call the resolution frustrating, it is also oddly satisfying, in a way. After all, few real-life stories get wrapped up with neat little bows.

More to the point, perhaps, the movie forces viewers to grapple with the thorny issues raised by the story. Would abusing Yousseff’s body and the Constitution be appropriate if it pinpointed three bombs saved 10 million lives? What if torture led to the defusing of one bomb, but two explode, killing 6 million — would tossing aside principle be worth it in that case?

Again, many people will produce different answers to these questions. Unthinkable, while imperfect, is gripping enough — and it deserves great credit for tackling these unpleasant issues. This is a movie that should be seen and discussed by many more people.


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