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Donald Trump paints the border as a lawless hellhole. But so does American pop culture.

Watching Sicario 2 in a time of border crisis.

Around a half-hour before sitting down for a screening of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to the 2015 crime thriller Sicario, I read MSNBC journalist Jacob Soboroff’s lengthy Twitter thread about his visit to a shelter for detained child migrants in Brownsville, Texas. Sobering and thoughtful, the report was one of the first major glimpses at a humanitarian crisis that has come to dominate headlines.

And then, as Sicario 2 began with images of brown people fleeing for the border, American helicopters tracking them with searchlights, I sank lower and lower in my seat. No matter how complicated, no matter how thoughtful, no matter how empathetic or respectful the story may have been, it really didn’t feel like the time to see a movie that begins with a base premise of “Nonwhite people entering America carry with them an unspecified existential threat to the country.”

The film only digs deeper in its next few scenes, which depict Islamic terrorists blowing up a superstore in Kansas City and a Somali pirate who may or may not have helped smuggle terrorists to Mexico (from where they could cross the border). The film later presents a scenario where Mexican drug cartels help smuggle people across the border, often with the help of Mexican-American teenagers, who are citizens but apparently have divided loyalties.

I should state up front that this is not entirely fair to Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Its last half-hour or so pushes back on a lot of the above, eventually returning to some of the first film’s larger questions about how the US has sown horrors around the world that are coming home to roost. And if nothing else, the franchise’s breakout character and main antihero, the hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), is Latino himself, so the movie at least complicates the “white Americans good; foreigners of other races bad” dichotomy of so many American action films.

But this piece isn’t about Sicario 2. It’s about how to live in a world where these sorts of action-movie entertainments seem, increasingly, to influence politics and policy, until the two swallow each other.

How a TV show came to define and influence the debate over torture

The cast of 24 season five.

Sicario 2, at least in its early going, reminded me chiefly of another 21st-century spin on “America must be protected from foreigners with dark designs to destroy it,” the 2001-2010 Fox series 24. That series, too, posited a world in which everybody from drug cartels to foreign governments to terrorists was working together to undermine and destroy the United States, and where only a handful of heroic Americans (mostly white and mostly men) could stem the tide of terror.

It was a show that split the difference between action, horror, and near-future sci-fi, and its most indelible image might be of hero Jack Bauer watching a mushroom cloud consume the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia. The show took place in a world where terrorists were forever carrying out attacks on American soil, but it also pretended to take place in our reality, blurring the lines between the two in a way that eventually became untenable. (The season that featured the Valencia attack soon completely forgot about it. It became just another thing that happened.)

24 is one of my favorite shows of its era, a wildly entertaining thriller that burned ridiculous plot twists for fuel and reflected a country that was running scared from phantoms it could never define. It debuted shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a pilot that had been filmed before those attacks (and had to be subsequently reworked to cut down on the time spent on a doomed airplane). But it very quickly became a kind of tour of the American psyche in the George W. Bush era, turning a country’s fears — from rigged elections to corrupt public officials working with “the enemy” to terrorist attacks — into propulsive action.

But what has come to define 24’s legacy is its frequent use of torture as a plot device, in a way that at first attempted to grapple with the lengths America was willing to go to in the name of security, and eventually just became another dark story twist. The series pivoted away from torture as a constant as it entered the Obama era, but by then, it was on its last legs. For better or worse, it was “the torture show,” one of the defining pop culture documents of an era when the US officially sanctioned torture as policy.

The producers of the series always defaulted to an explanation that the show was not an endorsement of torture, that the “ticking clock” scenarios it depicted were highly fictional and unlikely to happen in real life. But there’s plenty of evidence that a show as popular as 24 ultimately made torture more palatable to everyone from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to young military cadets. Wrote Jane Mayer in the New Yorker in 2007:

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

There are many more stories like this, both collected in Mayer’s piece and scattered throughout the eight-season initial run of 24. It was a terrific piece of television — that may or may not have made America more open to the idea of torture as a necessity in wartime, maybe even for those who were strenuously anti-torture like me. After all, if the show posited that torture worked every time, even if you knew it was completely ineffective, 24 made it easier to insert an “almost” before completely ineffective.

I’m not trying to say that 24 made America torture — or that movies like the Sicario duo have created our current border horrors — but when we know how likely human beings are to believe in a lie, even if they’re confronted with the truth, what do we do with the most skillfully crafted, brilliantly presented lies of them all? Who are you going to believe — the evidence or Hollywood?

How the Sicario movies accidentally prop up pernicious ideas about evil

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Benicio del Toro stars in Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP/Lionsgate

Both Sicario films are written by the terrific screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who has a particular gift for filtering the headlines of the day through machismo-driven action movie tropes. His Oscar-nominated script for Hell or High Water — in which two poverty-stricken brothers rob a series of banks to save the family farm — ended up feeling incredibly prescient about rural white poverty when the film was released in August 2016, mere months before Donald Trump was elected.

In general, I like Sheridan’s work, though it’s had diminishing returns for me. (I wasn’t a fan of his directorial debut, 2017’s Wind River, and his new TV series Yellowstone feels like a large collection of things that happen, rather than a story, though that problem is common to filmmakers who switch over to TV.) And his script for Sicario 2 struck me as exemplifying just why I’ve often held his films at arm’s length, even Hell or High Water, which is probably his best single script.

Sheridan’s movies often have what I call the “Hillbilly Elegy problem,” after the best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance. In a vacuum, Vance’s book is a heartfelt story of both his family and his need to separate from that family to build a better life for himself, of the ways that white rural poverty replicates itself through generations until one family member can break the chain (as Vance did by joining the military and going to law school). Because of its Appalachia setting and Vance’s homespun tales of his grandparents, the book became seen as a kind of ultimate explanation of why Trump won in 2016.

But Hillbilly Elegy does something subtly pernicious: It suggests that on some level, poverty is a choice or, at worst, an inexplicable force that visits itself upon the people in Vance’s story. Late in the book, Vance talks about the many folks he knows in his hometown who more or less choose their poverty because it means government assistance, which pushed Vance toward becoming a small-government Republican.

Vance’s politics are neither here nor there, except for the vantage point they provide for Elegy itself. The book steadfastly suggests that rural poverty — and maybe even poverty in general — isn’t really a problem of its readership, which will likely live in larger cities, possess higher levels of education, and skew toward the progressive side of the political spectrum, as the readership for most books does (to say nothing of publishing company employees). Hillbilly Elegy flatters its audience rather than challenging them, suggesting that poverty is a problem, yes, but not really one its readers have anything to do with. It is, instead, a strange beast that some choose to embrace and some experience via happenstance.

Sheridan’s movie scripts aren’t quite to that level of audience flattery, and they do tend to be at least interested in muddying the picture they initially present. But they’re also rarely interested in forcing much self-evaluation on the part of their viewers. The problems within them are always because of some mysterious “other,” be it the big, bad banks in Hell or High Water or the drug cartels in the Sicario movies. Most people are just trying to live their lives, and then the bad guys come along and turn ordinary people into bad guys themselves.

Indeed, that’s literally Alejandro’s origin story in the Sicario films. He was a prosecutor who found work with the Medellin drug cartel, which led to his family being killed by a rival cartel. There are still big mysteries around this story — though Sicario 2 sort of clears up whether “prosecutor” means “lawyer” or “assassin” — but its broad strokes fit Sheridan’s heroes exactly. The world is wicked, and most evil people either choose wickedness or have it thrust upon them. To push back against that wickedness requires becoming wicked yourself. Poverty and evil exist outside of the audience. We are not complicit. We are, instead, impartial observers.

The first Sicario film ably dramatizes this conflict via its protagonist, an FBI agent named Kate (Emily Blunt) who is slowly drawn into Alejandro’s world. She is meant, in some ways, to represent America itself, the questions we have over whether it’s worth losing our soul because of a fear of some darkness encroaching on the southern border. The film leaves Kate in a state of in-betweenness, rattled by all she’s seen her country do in the name of protecting itself, all that might have only sown further violence, but also unwilling to shoot Alejandro, the foremost example of those dark deeds. She, like her country, is paralyzed by fear, inaction, and indecision.

And then she’s not even in Sicario 2. Or, for that matter, even mentioned. It is, instead, a movie of certainty and action — and damn the consequences.

We are the product of stories more than we are the product of policies

Protest Over The Separation Of Incarcerated Immigrant Families And Children Held In El Paso, Texas Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As a cultural critic, I struggle with this idea, with wondering about how big the gap is between stories about nonwhite people pouring into the US to do terrible things and camps set up to hold children, first those who arrived here as undocumented teenagers and now those who have been ripped from their parents’ arms. We are a country of immigrants, sure, but we’re also a country that fears immigrants, and a country that tells stories that make that fear more potent.

And yet I have to believe that the fault of those who used 24 to support torture lies with them and not with the show. We are supposed to be able to interpret our stories, right? To grasp their morals, even when complicated? We can understand that Sicario isn’t explicitly endorsing a policy of closing the borders entirely, but, instead, starting from a nightmare scenario (horrible people trying to cross the border) to examine how any attempts to avert that nightmare scenario only make it worse. At least I hope we can.

But we are constantly surrounded by these narratives, in our pop culture, in our journalism, in our politics. We have a president who understands that if he places them into the discourse, as loudly and frequently as possible, enough people will believe in them to paralyze the system, to keep anything else from being done. And children lose parents, and parents lose children, and everything rots from within. None of us are right there, complicit in these actions. But all of us are complicit all the same. Poverty and evil, even if we suffer underneath their yokes, have been created in our image, to serve our needs.

Mark Powell’s 2017 novel Small Treasons takes this idea as its starting point. It’s centered on a married couple living in rural Georgia. The husband, John, was part of something called “Site Nine” during the war on terror, something that badly scarred him psychologically. His wife, Tess, married him after he was already snared in that darkness’s web, and it’s as if whatever he did there (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really — it was torture) has manifested itself in her, a constant fear of ISIS, of strange men pursuing her, of something living in the basement of her house, or maybe her country.

Neither of them can talk about this, can put words to the nameless fear they feel all the time, even as their country stokes its embers all around them. Both are burying tragedies, seemingly unaware that the only way to move forward is to surface those tragedies with each other. And the world they live in changes, rapidly, becoming less and less like the one they had grown up in, old graves covering with weeds. Here’s John, thinking about his aging parents:

His father watched old NBA games on ESPN Classic. The Celtics — Bird, McHale, Danny Ainge — versus the Lakers, versus Magic and Kareem. He’s a Muslim, ain’t he, son? I never much liked Kareem. It wasn’t racism, not exactly. They were his parents and what they were witness to was the falling away of everything they had ever known: observers trying to keep track of a universe that wouldn’t quit undoing itself, wouldn’t quit tearing apart the only world they had known. And they weren’t bitter. This amazed John, this cool acceptance, and only with time did he come to see it for what it was: a shedding, a last (necessary?) step before one is given over fully to death.

Our stories are not our policy, nor should they be interpreted as if they are. To be mad at Sicario 2 simply for existing in a world where the country that produced it has turned even crueler is choosing the wrong target. It enables us to be mad at what’s convenient instead of what is hard, and what I am complicit in simply by existing as an American with some degree of privilege in 2018. It’s the speck in your eye, instead of the beam in my own.

And yet. ... And yet, and yet ...

We are the product of stories more than we are the product of policies. Politics is downstream of culture, Andrew Breitbart famously said, and even if I disagree with him on everything else, I think I might agree with him on this. We reorder the world through our fiction, through our culture, and that trickles on down through the policies we make.

Stories like 24 or the Sicario films are useful pressure release valves for when reality turns too scary, a chance to confront the horrors of our lives via badass other selves, up there onscreen. We don’t have to worry because somebody out there is making the tough choices, and maybe some of us feel conflicted about that, and maybe some of us celebrate it, but we all feel comforted by it, on some level. Everybody wants to sleep at night, secure in their own righteousness.

But the truth is closer to that of John and Tess in Small Treasons. We are all trying to slough off a recent past that makes it harder and harder to ignore our own wickedness. Evil doesn’t come from outside. It comes from within, and sometimes “tough choices” involve ripping babies from their mothers’ arms. I wish more of our culture were willing to grapple with this, with the way we have all been scarred by what is done in our names. Maybe that’s why a strain of old-school Calvinist Christianity runs through Small Treasons — not all of us are evil, but all of us are marked, always, by a sin we cannot wash out.


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