This one is a bit more serious than usual, but it’s also rooted in a sincere curiosity about something that has become a topic in recent days.
Recently I wrote about movie birthdays and the challenge of defining such a thing. In that piece I said in an off-hand way that it wouldn’t be “as serious” as trying to get Paw Patrol cancelled. Of course, the New York Times discussing the “problems” of Paw Patrol was essentially a blog riffing on a tweet, but I’m going to treat you to better quality than that.
The joke I made was also a reference to the current wave of “cancelling” cop shows because they commit the cardinal sin of portraying police in a good light. I’m not debating whether that’s a good or a bad thing; I wasn’t even aware, for instance, that Cops was still on the air.
But I can’t help but wonder what the opinion or consensus would be of some of my favorite films. Several of them aren’t just favorites. They’re literally responsible for teaching me about film and what I liked in it.
A Note About Manhunter
Michael Mann’s Manhunter molded my film tastes in significant ways. It’s an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon, and it’s terrific. (As a side note, its title was changed because of the fear that the failure of Year of the Dragon, released by the same company, would impact audiences by reminding them of that title.) It’s also the unspoken sibling of Mann’s Miami Vice TV series.
It’s an amazing film in every way. The pacing, the photography, and the performances are terrific. The oft-overlooked character actor Stephen Lang turns in a memorable Freddie Lounds. Brian Cox is a stunning sociopath.
There’s an immortal moment when Will Graham looks at his reflection in a rainy window, freed from other concerns, and addresses the killer Francis Dollarhyde in spirit as he spits out, “It’s just you and me now, sport.”
The climax of the film isn’t just a magnificently choreographed explosion of violence. It’s one of my favorite examples of diegetic music to this day. Thanks to this film, I heard In a Gadda Da Vida for the first time in my life, which remains one of my favorite songs. Likely at least part of my love for it comes from that first viewing of Manhunter.
William Peterson inhabits the role of a retired FBI profiler asked to come back and find the killer behind horrific slayings. While the book is a bit different, it’s still the obvious source. The film is essentially a police procedural.
So What Do We Do?
So if we’re shunning any work that portrays police in a positive light, what do we do with Manhunter? What do we do with Silence of the Lambs, or any of a number of other films like Heat and Die Hard that extoll the virtues of hard-working detectives dedicated to the defeat of the criminal?
What do we do with David Fincher’s exquisite series Mindhunter, which portrays not just police but the FBI as fundamentally good organizations working to subvert the will of the worst in society? I guess I shouldn’t hold out hope that a miracle happens and it gets finished instead of being left undone thanks to Fincher’s packed schedule. (Trust me, that one hurts worse than the decades spent whining about a single season of Firefly.)
Where do we find ourselves with the Lethal Weapon series? The second film in that series specifically paints (LAPD!) cops as working to defeat racists. The third film has a major plot point around the idea of “cop killer” bullets that were significant headline generators at the time; it’s undeniable that the police are seen as working against the odds to defeat well-armed criminals. The fourth one, for my money, doesn’t actually exist, so we can all just agree to ignore that one.
Am I to disavow the Lethal Weapon films, despite their amazing craftsmanship and true dedication to highlighting problematic social issues? Richard Donner was loudly and proudly anti-Apartheid and used these films to highlight that. He focused on real social issues in the sequels. The series highlighted PTSD and mental illness in a sincere way with the character of Riggs when most films wouldn’t really discuss it.
Even Dystopias Have Complex Cops
RoboCop is constructed around the themes of corporatization and corruption, but there’s no mistake that the Detroit Police are portrayed as the “good guys.” Would this invalidate its other messages examining humanity and technology, and the excesses of corporate greed, when viewed with that in mind? There were also questions of humanity and virtue laced throughout.
If anything, films like RoboCop, and even Predator 2, project out the idea of the police as beleaguered by well-organized and armed criminals. They fully embrace the vision of a criminal apocalypse that many films in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s projected. It was a certain thing to films of that era that the future was full of unchecked criminals who bordered on supervillainy.
For goodness’ sake, Soylent Green deals with a police officer trying to uncover a horrific scandal at the root of society. This scandal, like RoboCop after it, revolves around corporate greed and government favoritism.
But make no mistake — they always portray these cops as similar to the Jim Gordon of Batman: Year One or Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. They’re trapped in a flawed system and trying to accomplish good despite the systemic issues they encounter. In a sense, these cops are the good guys not because all cops are “good guys” in their world, but because these are virtuous people trying to use their position to do good. In a sense, their jobs are secondary to their true nature.
What I wish, before people decide they want to wipe out a film or a genre, they considered a few things. Bear with me.
I wish that people would understand that the people consuming these entertainments aren’t children. Functional adults can see any number of things and contextualize them for what they are. Only people dereft of reason, or the pridefully condescending, think that those who watch something ascribe everything about it as reality.
In other words, it says a lot about someone who thinks that a person who watches Cops doesn’t understand that bad cops need to be punished. It says that not only do they think they’re a smart person, they think “everyone else” is dumb.
That type of person is a tool. That’s always been true, and always will be.
That might be the most troubling thing about this desire to purge these sorts of entertainment: It’s rooted in a fundamental arrogance. There are plenty of people, myself included, who know that the real world is a complex and tricky place and don’t need to watch or read things that only conform to our world views to find them valid or well-crafted.
That’s not entertainment programming. It’s programming in the sense of agitprop.
The beauty of the forum of ideas is that it’s free and open, and any ideas can be heard and debated. The beauty of defending that forum is that it protects everyone.
And in terms of the types of things that someone watches, sometimes…a cigar is just a cigar. It’s not ascribing to “police propaganda” to love Heat. It’s just loving a good film that’s well constructed and which allows you to escape your life for a few hours. To think that it will mold people into being avowed defenders of bad cops is like thinking someone will jump on a broom in hopes it lets them fly after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Give people a little credit, and let them enjoy some escapism.
The strangest thing about this is, I’m a nobody and just writing this blog because I like to write. A small number of people like to read it. I’ve said nothing controversial on here.
And yet, I wonder sometimes if there is such a thing as “non-controversial” anymore.