May 31, 2009

Plausibility vs. Accuracy

Last night, I was attending a bachelor party for a friend, and after returning to his house, we grabbed some beer and pizza and turned on the movie Shooter. All the other guys there seemed to think it was an incredible movie, mostly due to the eponymous sniping and the 'hot chick.' I, to be completely honest, thought it was terrible. I was trying to figure out why the movie struck me as so bad. It wasn't the action scenes, since those were well executed (they had a home where the gas had been turned on explode like it was a petroleum tank; a real house would have simply caught on fire). It wasn't even really the plot (a Marine sniper is framed for the assassination of an Ethiopian archbishop). It was the over-the-top inaccuracy involved.

Before anyone chews me out for that statement, I know that many, many movies are inaccurate. However, most of those movies aren't trying to be real-life thrillers. What seems to make a good movie is one that remains accurate to the real-life institutions it is representing while pushing the envelope on plausibility.

As an example, take an excellent real-life thriller, The Departed. The film is accurate through its representation of the mob and the workings of the State Police and the FBI. Were a mole for the Winter Hill Gang to actually enter the Massachusetts State Police, he would likely act in the way shown in the film: he would seek as much information as possible, he would use a different cell phone setup when contacting his mob connections, and he would meet those connections in nondescript places where he would be unlikely to be trailed. The Police, on the other hand, would be restrained, as they are in the movie, needing to meet a high standard of evidence before taking an actual case to trial. The movie works within the real bounds of the institutions it represents. It pushes plausibility with the coincidences of the two moles at the same time, the parallelism of the characters, their simultaneous relationship with the same woman, and their ultimate fates. It is that 'what if' that makes the movie impressive.

Shooter is a plausible movie. The notion of a top sniper being framed for assassination by a rogue band of intelligence agents sound like an interesting plot. However, the abundant inaccuracies regarding the workings of the government were astounding and, ultimately, disappointing. A short listing of dead-wrong moments:
  • The military abandoning the shooter and his partner. Even on top secret missions, the Army makes every attempt to find a missing soldier. Beyond the obvious honor-duty-country reasoning, it is necessary not to abandon those who have families that might go to the press and seriously damage both the reputation and the morale of the armed forces. The CIA may have such moments, which the families would be made aware of; the military does not.
  • The military following orders of a rogue senator. Senators, even those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have no ability to issue orders. There would never be an operation without the express consent of the Secretary of Defense or the Director of the CIA, and the President would likely be briefed. A Senator (maybe) could hire out contractors, but the actual military would never be involved without someone else either being fooled (which the movie gives no indication of) or knowledgeable of it. It's called the separation of powers--the executive branch runs the military, the legislative controls the pursestrings.
  • The CIA knowing about a potential assassination attempt and allowing the President to speak anyway. This one is really ridiculous, and it harms the believability of the main character more than the movie itself. He's supposed to be trained in counterintelligence and intuitively brilliant. Wouldn't anyone with half a brain know that if there is a likely assassination attempt, then the President's remarks would be moved indoors or canceled outright? The Secret Service doesn't play games with the President's safety. Any idiot would realize something fishy with the government allowing a sniper to even get a gun and a clean shot at the President.
  • The Archbishop of Ethiopia. There is no archbishop of Ethiopia. There is an archdiocese in Addis Ababa (the Ethiopian capital), but not for the entire country. That should have been simple enough to correct. The writers could have just added the line "It's the archbishop of Addis Ababa, who they consider a spiritual guide throughout Ethiopia."
  • The punishment of the FBI agent. An FBI agent who was attacked by a suspected assassin (especially an assassin trained at the level of Mark Wahlberg's character) would be more important as a witness at the assassin's trial than anything else. It may be an embarrassment for him and for the agency, but he certainly wouldn't have a review with Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and be ostracized from the rest of the agents (add in that he was 'fresh out of the Academy', and he wouldn't be expected to handle that situation). Additionally, OPR only investigates attorneys accused of abuse of prosecutorial (or other) authority. It has nothing to do with agents for the FBI.
  • The final review with the Attorney General. This meeting was ridiculous on many, many levels. First, evidence for an assassination as important as a gun would never be simply left on a table for a meeting. Additionally, the gun would be with an agent at all times and not left (duh) at the end of the table next to the suspect, who is (duh, again) one of the world's best snipers. Second, a prisoner of that magnitude would not be 'uncuffed' unless there was security personnel around him. He certainly wouldn't be allowed to shake the hand of an FBI agent there. He also certainly would not be allowed to be there without an attorney present. Third, (and probably most importantly) the meeting wouldn't have even happened, since the Attorney General and FBI Director simply don't meet with prisoners, no matter how important they are. Bobby Kennedy would never have met with Lee Harvey Oswald for any reason. Instead, investigators and attorneys would have met with him. The Attorney General is an administrator, not an active investigator. Fourth, the Attorney General has no power to simply order that a prisoner be released. The Justice Department must first file paperwork order the withdrawal of a complaint due to lack of evidence, which must then go to a judge with jurisdiction. The judge orders the release. Fifth, somehow the Attorney General simply believes the FBI agent who says that Danny Glover's character was involved in Ethiopian genocide, after he provides 'proof', which is simply photos of a mass grave. Sorry, pal. You can't just show photos of genocide, accuse someone of perpetrating it, and then expect them to be detained. Even more embarrassing, however, is the Attorney Generals inability to know his own jurisdiction. 18 USC 1091 covers the crime of Genocide, which, if the perpetrator is in the US, can be charged.
Overall, an okay action movie with a really, really inaccurate subtext.

No comments: