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February 24, 2013

It seems pretty widely accepted these days that the long-running “war on drugs” is largely a failure, kept alive now mostly by the same sort of perverse incentive structure that keeps us using the same air traffic control infrastructure that, in some cases, also dates from the 1970s: even if everyone agrees that the system needs an overhaul, it’s in nobody’s short-term interest to change it.

The mandatory minimum sentencing laws, for instance, were intended to give prosecutors a cudgel to swing at recalcitrant criminals, trying to get them to testify against their superiors in exchange for a moderately reasonable sentence. Snitch — a dramatization of the Frontline documentary of the same name about the drug war’s use of informants — tries to address this issue, but wavers somewhere between strident didacticism and cheap melodrama.

The setup is a legitimate complaint. Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) receives a package containing thousands of pills of ecstasy, sent by a friend of his. His friend, it turns out, has already been arrested, and is testifying that Jason is not only receiving the pills but also helping to sell them, all in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. Jason is now facing an enormous mandatory minimum sentence himself — despite some truly massive holes in the prosecution’s case — and is offered his own chance to facilitate further arrests.

This appears to be a stupid and ineffectual tactic on the part of the prosecutors. It may be easier to follow informants downstream — those closer to the bottom have less power to strike back at informants — but those accused are further and further from the people who really need to be stopped. The chain of dominos runs backwards, ending with the smallest fry, who are either stuck with massive sentences and nobody to pass the hot potato to, or forced to entrap someone.

Just because it’s stupid and ineffectual doesn’t mean people won’t do it. Prosecutors may get more press at once from a big bust, but overall their career incentives weight the quantity of convictions over their quality. I do not doubt that this sort of situation actually does play out in our legal system, and it deserves some serious examination, which the Frontline documentary provides.

But Americans would rather watch a half-assed action film with a big-name star than some boring old PBS show, and so stuntman Ric Roman Waugh directs that instead.

Jason’s estranged father, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) is so distraught over the possibility of his son spending that much time getting beaten up in prison that he decides to do the informing for his son. He approaches the federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) and her lead undercover agent (Barry Pepper) and hashes out a deal. He enlists one of the ex-cons working in his construction yard, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), to help him get to local bigshot Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams), and through him to cartel player “El Topo” (Benjamin Bratt).

The “based on a true story” parts are dealt with in awkward expository dumps and screenshots of Wikipedia, all but telling the audience explicitly “let’s get our boring policy points out of the way so we can get with the shooty and the smashy”. Which shooty and smashy bits are yet again shot with shaky hand-held camerawork that’s nauseating in a calm discussion, and downright unwatchable in any sort of action.

The non-shooty-and-smashy bits are all cheesy crime melodrama cliches. Almost all the women — John and Daniel’s wives — are hysterical wrecks who, in the script’s view, need to shut up and let their strong-man husbands protect their families. The exception is Sarandon’s character, who is an entirely different negative female stereotype.

John, on the other hand, embodies the view that the right answer is a strong Man of Action who moves decisively, without a careful consideration of the very real risks to just about everyone around him. It’s obvious that he’s going to get the goods on these traffickers, but it’s going to end with three families going into permanent hiding, uprooting their entire lives, and probably spelling the end of his precious construction company. But it’s all worth it to save his son, and much more satisfying to macho sensibilities than, say, an appeals process and raising public awareness of the prosecutor’s perverse incentives.

Which awareness is, ostensibly, the whole point of making the movie in the first place. But the movie, as made, reinforces the validity and effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentencing. The prosecutor may be an unreasonable hard-ass, but she’s an unreasonable hard-ass who Gets Things Done, undercutting the fact that the producers really need her to be the villain here.

But like I said: just because it’s stupid and ineffectual doesn’t mean people won’t do it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 1, 2013 11:11

    It’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. It;s just slap-dab in the middle and that was fine with me. Good review.

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