Saturday, July 14, 2012

Safe House -- betrayal, lies and truth

Director: Daniel Espinoza, 2012. (R)  

Safe House looked great from the trailer: a star-studded cast, headed by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, in a thoughtful thriller. It turns out that like many movies the trailer is a tease and the film is a letdown. The characters in Espinoza's plot are cardboard cutouts there to set the dialog and the action.

Ultimately Safe House is a safe movie, playing to the action thriller genre, not bringing much novelty to the fray. Its worldview is opposed to the CIA and other espionage organizations that operate throughout the world, believing that they cannot help but become corrupted. Yet it avoids exploring this premise, preferring to play it safe with flimsy characters and preachy dialog. Covertly, though, it offers a springboard for discussion of the themes of cyncism, betrayal, lies and truth, and that is worthwhile.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a veteran CIA agent gone rogue and now selling state secrets to the highest bidders. When he surfaces in Cape Town to buy a microfile of sensitive information, suddenly a team of killers is on his tail. The action is fast and furious, made even more so by the shaky hand-held camerawork.

Realizing his predicament, he allows himself to get taken by the Americans, his former employers. They take him to the titular "safe house" where a team of interrogators will find out all his secrets, that is they will torture him with waterboarding until he breaks.

Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a naive CIA rookie who is tasked with manning the Cape Town safe house. Lying to his French girlfriend about his job and his on-call behavior, he desperately wants to see some real action, to get some fieldwork so he can be transferred to a legitimate station, like Paris or Rome.

When the safe house is breached and the interrogators killed, Weston faces the biggest mission of his career. As Frost tells him, "Remember rule number one: you are responsible for your house guest. I'm your house guest." Weston must get Frost to a new safe house, while evading the killers on the loose.

Back in the States, a posse of CIA bureaucrats jockey around to avoid blame. Barlow (Brendon Gleason, The Guard) is Weston's handler; Linklater (Vera Farmiga, Source Code) overseers the interrogation team; and Whitford (Sam Shepard) is their superior. But there is a conspiracy under the surface, evident from Frost's comments to Weston: "I think you need to consider how your safe house was attacked in the first place. The house was a secure location. Whoever crashed it, they were invited. Someone told them, someone you know." If you watch carefully enough from the start, the real bad guy is predictable.

Corruption and cynicism provide the environment for the plot. Frost has seen it all and during his time with Westin imparts his jaded worldview to the novice. In his view, all spies end up corrupted one way or another. "You practice anything a long time, you get good at it. You tell a hundred lies a day, it sounds like the truth. Everyone betrays."

Betrayal is one of the themes. Frost has betrayed his country. Others have too. Do we all betray one another? Such a negative view of humanity is not too unrealistic. Our depravity (Jer. 17:9) leads us to focus on self and turn on others. Jesus pointed out that his incarnation itself would lead to betrayal, even within a family: "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me." (Mk. 13:12-13)  Betrayal is an established way of life, the more so for those who do not follow Jesus, even if we deny it most of the time.

Frost's wisdom to Weston on lying suggests that when you tell enough lies as part of your job, you risk not being able to tell the difference between truth and lies. We become immune to the truth, innoculated against its veracity. Just as the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Cor. 15:33), so lies corrupt our conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) and we become blinded to the light of the truth. Then our lies become a semblance of truth for us. We have become self-deceivers, just as we are other-deceivers. There is truth in this. We cannot lie and remain untarnished. To build a career on lying is to damage, if not destroy, our character and reputation.

Toward the end, after the violence subsides and Weston's character arc comes towards its climax, one character tells him: "People don't want the truth anymore, Matt. It's too messy." There is some truth in this. Truth shines in our hearts like a light in a dark room, forcing us to see things we might prefer to avoid. It is ugly and sometimes dangerous. It forces us to accept our depravity or change; and no one likes change. But the truth will set you free (Jn. 8:32) if you let it in the person of Jesus (Jn. 14:6). But Jesus is messy; he offers true peace but brings the sword of division in this life (Mt. 10:34). Those who expect the serenity of the health and wealth gospel have missed the message of Christ.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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