Released: 2010
Director: Gregor Jordan

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen, Carrie-Anne Moss

An intelligent thriller that raises difficult questions

How far would you go to stop a terrorist attack? Waterboarding? Torture? Murder? Murder of the suspect’s family? That’s the question asked in the 2010 thriller Unthinkable starring Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss and Michael Sheen.

Sheen plays Stephen Arthur Younger, an American citizen who has converted to Islam and claims to have planted nuclear bombs in three US cities. Due to his military background the threat is deemed to be serious and the military, CIA and FBI are faced with the possibility of over 10 million people killed in the attacks. Specialist interrogator (torturer) Samuel L. Jackson is brought in to extract information from Younger by any means. FBI agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) is horrified by the apparently illegal and unconstitutional treatment meted out, but as time ticks by and the impending attacks come closer everyone involved begins to consider the efficacy of the interrogator’s tactics. Is the price of committing unthinkable acts worth it to save the lives of millions of innocent people?

While there are moments of graphic violence and at least one set-piece action sequence this isn’t your everyday thriller. This is a film made to get the viewers thinking. Brody cites both the US constitution and the Geneva Convention in her opposition to the torture of Younger and rationally the audience has to agree but faced with the very real possibility of ten million immediate deaths and future radiation sickness does the protection of one man’s rights really matter? Would the death of his family be a justifiable price to pay to save millions of other families?

There are also other elements of the story which also raise difficult questions. Would Brody’s desire to protect Younger and his family be so strong if he was (for example) a Saudi Muslim? Is it his American heritage and his whiteness which make his actions seem so extreme? What kind of person is prepared to torture someone and what is the impact on their own mental state? I don’t have an answer to any of these questions but I know I’ll be thinking about them and discussing them with my husband for a few days at least.

Even though the film will make the audience think a lot about the issues it raises it isn’t without flaws. It makes much of the timescale that the agents are working under but in one scene on a Wednesday a character says there are four days until the bombs are detonated (on Friday). It’s a minor scripting/continuity error but it made me shout out loud in frustration. The multi-agency relationships seemed as clichéd as ever, nobody liked each other and only the hero’s agency were reliable and honest.

It’s inevitable that there will be comparisons to 24 – Brody heads a Counter-Terrorism Unit, the anti-hero is prepared to use torture to get his way and the short time-frame increases the tension.  Even the DVD cover seems to suggest a connection.  Don’t be fooled by this unhelpful marketing.  I love 24 but it’s a gung-ho adventure where the end always justifies the means.  It isn’t the same at all in this film.

The performances help to raise the film to a standard well above its straight-to-DVD release would indicate. Samuel L. Jackson once again proves his star quality in a role where he flips between loving family man and sadistic murderer in an instant. Michael Sheen is impressive as a man who holds the fate of the nation in his hands and is prepared to withstand any amount of torture to achieve his aims. Carrie-Anne Moss is good as Helen Brody but I do have issues with any character who knows articles of the Geneva Convention off the top of their heads. I’m pretty clued up on things like that but I would have to check for exact details, particularly in a stressful situation.

Unthinkable is a great suspense film and psychological thriller with a couple of decent but unremarkable action sequences. I suspect it won’t get a huge audience which is a shame because unlike many other thrillers it does challenge the viewers to consider human rights versus protection of life. In this day and age it’s a question that’s going to be come up over and over again and anything that gets us thinking about it must be a good thing.

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