Ethics & Public Policy Center

Swordfish

Published in EPPC Online on June 1, 2001



As an example of postmodern movie-making, the beginning of Swordfish, written by Skip Woods and directed by Dominic Sena, takes a lot of beating. John Travolta looking like the middle-aged dandy of which he has made rather a speciality since Pulp Fiction, is shown in tight close-up in the role of movie critic. “You know what the trouble with Hollywood is?” he asks an interviewer who is off-camera. “They make s***.” This uncontroversial observation he then proceeds to gloss by saying: “I’m talking about the lack of realism,” and he cites as his example the ending of Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino’s character, he thinks, “didn’t push the envelope” of what he professes to think of as realistic movie-making. “What if he started killing hostages right away?” he asks. “How many innocent victims splattered across the windows would it take to make the city change its policy?”

The unseen interlocutor, supposedly sticking up for movie conventions, points out that the hostage crisis could not be seen to be resolved in this way. “The guy can’t win. It’s a morality tale. He’s got to go down.”

Travolta’s character then wryly observes that “life is stranger than fiction sometimes” before announcing that it’s time for him to go — whereupon the camera pulls back to reveal that he is the chief actor in a hostage-taking that swiftly culminates in an innocent victim’s being splattered across the windows.

But the multiple ironies of the scene go further than perhaps the filmmakers intended. We can pretty confidently expect that the ending of this movie will not be “a morality tale” — at least not the traditional sort exemplified by Dog Day Afternoon. But the appeal to “realism” — by which the speaker means that outside of the movies not only do ruthless villains neglect to build up suspense but crime actually does pay — is wonderfully double-edged. For by fracturing what are by now long out-dated movie conventions, Sena’s movie produces not more but less realism. Real hostage-takers are more like the muddled and pathetic character portrayed by Mr Pacino than the machine-like and omnicompetent Gabriel Shear presented to us by Mr Travolta. And they rarely if ever escape scot-free with the girl and the money.

Nor does this film’s unrealism stop here. One is so used to it by now, of course, that Hollywood’s ignorance of and contempt for politics and the real exercise of power is easily taken for granted, but Swordfish takes it to new heights. The terrible Mr Shear, we learn, is an anti-terrorist terrorist. The bank heist in which he kills several hostages and police— which, by the way, makes no dramatic sense, as the money is somewhere else and being shifted around by computer — is to raise the funds for a world-wide anti-terrorism campaign being secretly backed by a United States senator (Sam Shepard) who has, apparently, unlimited use of the federal law-enforcement apparatus to pursue his clandestine campaign. When Shear, the senator’s “rottweiler,” threatens to get out of hand, he orders him killed. But the quarry turns hunter when, after murdering a large number of federal agents in black SUVs in the streets of Los Angeles, he shoots the senator himself in a trout-stream while proclaiming that “patriotism does not have a four-year shelf-life.”

These guys don’t even know that senators serve six-year terms! But to criticize the preposterousness, not to say the idiocy, of such a plot is, I realize, beside the point, since po-mo movie-making positively glories in preposterousness. As it does also, obviously, in eating its cake and having it too by making its ruthless slaughterer of innocents a right-wing law-enforcement nut. Similarly, it loves the sentimental cliché of having its hero, played by Hugh Jackman, motivated to help Shear’s scheme by concern for his beloved daughter, whom he is forbidden by law to see and whose new step-father is a porn baron who casts his wife, the girl’s mother, in his films. Well I guess we know whose side to be on! But the hordes of people who have made this the number one movie in the country presumably reason that the unbelievable plot and the implausible characters are insignificant considerations when put next to the exciting action photography and the snappy dialogue. It’s not real but it’s clever.

Well, there’s no accounting for taste. But it is just worth pointing to one reason why such a calculation might be mistaken. A key plot element in Swordfish has to do with illusionism. Shear explains that he will be able to fool the feds by misdirection, a magician’s trick perfected by Harry Houdini. “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” But there is an essential difference between magic tricks and movies. With magic tricks we are content not to know how the trick works. Or at least our enjoyment of the trick doesn’t depend on our knowing how it works. But that is because the trick takes place in the context of reality which, we know, places limits on what is possible. But movies take place in the context of illusion. And where all is illusion, we have to have a sense of some underlying reality for any particular illusion to have a pleasing effect. At the film’s climax, we seem to see two people killed who are not killed. How did they perform this trick? The film thinks we don’t need to know, but I think we do. Otherwise, Hollywood is just making more s***.

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