Early in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado," shadowy CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) casually sits on the table next to a recently captured Somali pirate and tells him that if the man doesn't provide information on an upcoming terror plot, Graver will order a missile strike on the man's brother, and they'll watch it on an overhead feed streaming to a nearby laptop.
If he holds out, Graver says, he'll target another brother. Then another. Eventually they'll get to someone the man cares about.
The man does hold out briefly, so Graver gets on the radio and gives a "green light." For a few tense seconds the man watches the video feed before a massive explosion engulfs his home, with his brother next to it and clearly within lethal range.
As I watched this in the theater, I thought to myself, "Oh, that's a clever bluff. After the pirate cracks, they'll reveal that the explosion was a computer-generated fake." But then... the next scene started somewhere else. No explanation. For all the audience knows, the CIA just murdered a presumably innocent person on foreign soil just because he was related to someone accused of withholding information.
The scene is troubling on its own in a work of fiction, but especially so because all I could think about was that time that the man who now sits in the Oval Office once said on television that when it comes to terrorists, the U.S. should "take out their families."
It was a morally troubling moment early in Donald Trump's presidential campaign, but apparently not a one-off. After Trump became president, The Washington Post reported that he visited CIA headquarters where he was shown video of a drone strike on a terror target in which the CIA had waited until the target was away from his family. "Why did you wait?" he reportedly asked.
It was difficult to watch the second Sicario movie without the creeping shadow of nihilism that gives the movie all-too-real relevancy, especially when it comes to the families of "bad guys." The central plot of the movie, after all, involves the U.S. government-ordered kidnapping of a Mexican drug kingpin's teenage daughter and an order later to murder that child.
The movie bets big on the "no rules this time" theme that was featured so heavily in the trailers. And while it is certainly a well-made, tense film, I think it ultimately fails because it is totally lacking any kind of moral center to remind anyone that there are rules for a reason -- if nothing else to protect your soul.
In the first movie, which I thought was excellent, that came in the form of main character Kate Macer played by Emily Blunt. In that film, the audience, through Kate, slowly descended into an underlying ethical blackness in which very bad men do very bad things to other very bad men with military precision and without any hesitation -- anything to achieve their ends. The film is about how Kate reacts to discovering this underworld and her struggle -- and ours -- to preserve herself in it.
This new film, lacking Kate, is all underworld all the time. It's as if there was a sequel to "Apocalypse Now" in which Col. Kurtz survived and the whole movie was about him being crazy in the jungle, no Martin Sheen in sight.
The Sicario sequel does make half-baked feints toward moral redemption, including one very uncharacteristic sudden reversal that screams "studio influence" to me. But when the most noble stance in the film is "I won't execute a teenage girl," you're not exactly setting the bar very high.
If there's a redeeming quality to all this, it may be that it will remind audience members that when government officials use tough-sounding talk about "taking the gloves off" or "doing what has to be done," citizens should pause to consider what that might really mean.
Days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, then-Vice President Dick Cheney said on television -- in words that could've been ripped from Sicario's script -- that in its counter-terrorism fight, the U.S. would "have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We're going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussions, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in. And so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."
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