Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, last year’s Best Documentary Feature winner at the Oscars, is a compelling document of one of the biggest moments in our nation’s recent history. It’s an informative movie, but perhaps its most insightful aspect is the tangible sense of dread that permeates through to the bedrock of every scene. Because of what we see onscreen, there can no longer be an implicit trust of the government. Poitras does a great job of letting her camera linger on moments of hesitation and uncertainty about security. Unease replaces trust.
Sicario is the fictional Citizenfour. Not in its subject matter- very little in Sicario’s plot is pertinent to Edward Snowden’s NSA documents. But Sicario, from beginning to end, mirrors the dread of Citizenfour. At its start, we know something is amiss, but we can’t articulate it. By its finish, our paranoia is justified, but we’re helpless to do anything about it.
Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent who specializes in hostage cases. Following a particularly traumatic experience in the field involving an uncovered mass murder in Arizona, Kate is recruited by Matt Graver (a giddily great Josh Brolin), who may or may not be FBI, to track down the man at the top of the cartel responsible for the aforementioned mass murder. Kate doesn’t have much explained to her regarding their mission or her role in it or the identity of the strange man with Matt, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). But she joins their team anyway, because she knows the work she’s doing in Arizona won’t end up making much of a dent in the long run, and Matt and Alejandro promise her that getting to the guy at the top would be like “discovering a vaccine.”
Director Denis Villenueve (you may remember him from the equally dread-filled Prisoners and Enemy) includes several effective and intense points of action. The team goes into Mexico to retrieve an informant, knowing all the while that the cartel is likely to counterstrike while they’re stuck in traffic at the border, and there’s an exhilarating sequence in which they try to determine who in all the cars surrounding them might be with the cartel. Later, Kate has a moment of reprieve, but is then attacked by someone who isn’t who she thinks they are, and it’s at turns thrilling and terrifying. But this isn’t an action movie. Sicario is about fear, distrust. There’s plenty of suspense to go around, but this isn’t the War on Drugs war movie the trailers promise you; Blunt does a little ass-kicking, but this is more like a War on Drugs X-Files episode.
The X-Files is a good point of reference for Sicario. One of the best aspects of that show was how nearly every second of it was filled with paranoia about the government. The showrunners revealed just enough to confirm that the government was up to no good, but not enough for Scully and Mulder to really do anything about it.
Sicario does the same thing. Eventually, the government’s corruption is revealed in the midst of their mission, and Kate can’t do anything about it. But Sicario also begs the question of whether right or wrong really matters at the macro level. Kate knows she isn’t accomplishing anything; maybe Matt and Alejandro are. The final scene seems to argue that doing things the right way should matter, because human lives are involved. That sounds correct, but what if doing things the right way allows evil to win? Do we have to play by evil’s rules if we want to win the war against evil?
It’s not hard to imagine things like Sicario happening in real life. We already know the government breaks the rules; the past ten years of Guantanamo, drone strikes, and Snowden have seen to that. We want our government to be pure and free of wrongdoing, but we know that’s not reality. That’s not practical. So I wake up every morning, go to my job at a high school, stand up to say the pledge with my hand on my heart, and live as if there’s nothing to be afraid of. Surely I’ll always be free to do that. Surely.