Monday, August 14, 2017

Detroit (2017)

It's hard to deny the sheer force of the latest movie from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a scathing horrorshow treatment of one incident in one "long hot summer" in one American city in the '60s. It's 1967 and it's Detroit, but it's also 2017 and Black Lives Matter. The movie is historical but the prism is today. Bigelow and Boal, who previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, focus here on a long and harrowing scene of police brutality and fatal misdeeds during a field investigation inside a residence motel. Meanwhile, outside, there's a riot goin' on, literally. The scene in the motel sustains a remarkable amount of intensity and it goes on for a long time. The movie left me well wrung out. The true facts of the case on which it's based are somewhat murky. The officers were acquitted at trial, but that was a matter of legal technicalities, wrongfully taken confessions or some such. No one doubts their guilt for at least three murders. But not all the details of that night are understood or agreed on, so Bigelow and Boal have made choices to address gaps and conflicts in the story. The results may be controversial but we know police behave this way. The details serve a greater truth. So I was basically OK with these scenes, above and beyond the discomfort of witnessing them. But along about 40 minutes into the mayhem I started to notice that the movie seemed to be making another point: torture does not work. Of course, that reminded me of their last picture, Zero Dark Thirty, which was controversial not only because it showed torture working, but did so within the frame that it was part of a greater truth—awful things happen in the fog of war, and how can anyone be held morally accountable if the results are what we want? (This is also known as "history is written by the victors.") (except in the case of the Confederate South, see also Charlottesville) On the torture issue, Detroit goes the other direction, not that I want to imply it's some kind of shell game. If I went into the movie less inclined to give Bigelow and Boal the benefit of the doubt, the effect of Detroit, as I said, is hard to deny. It's vivid, intense, and searing, which are also generally the hallmarks of Bigelow's pictures, certainly since she came into her own with The Hurt Locker. But Detroit is also heavy-handed and clankingly obvious—you can argue that's because it has to be, because it reflects a reality too long unacknowledged, even now. Fair warning. It is a blunt force object and it's coming at your face. Yet as I mull over the experience of this movie, I keep remembering things like how the bad cops are implicitly portrayed as isolated bad apples. People higher up the chain are onto them but haven't been able to get them yet. My impression of reality is more that a lot of those people up the chain are just bad apples that got promoted. Once again, see also Charlottesville.

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