Sunday, May 25, 2008

Unbelief and the Deification of the Civil Magistrate:

In the 2002 film Insomnia, Al Pacino is Will Dormer, a veteran Los Angeles homicide detective who isn’t above tampering with evidence — only “when necessary,” of course. (I.e., only to ensure the conviction of suspects that everybody knows are guilty.) He and his younger partner, Hap Eckhart, have been sent to Nightmute, Alaska to help the police chief, an old LAPD buddy, investigate the beating death of 17-year-old Kay Connell — and to get them away from a widening Internal Affairs investigation into the dubious ethics of certain detectives.

After arriving and getting settled in, Hap tells Dormer he’s decided to make a deal with IA so that things will go better for him in the long run. Dormer warns Hap that IA only wants to use him to get to Dormer — the “big fish” that will get IA the headlines they want.

Hap protests, “You’re not going to be involved. You’re a G-- d--- hero. With your reputation he can’t touch you. ... You’re clean, Will. ... They’ve got nothing on you because there’s nothing to get.”

“What about [the] Dobbs [case]?” asks Dormer.

“That’s different,” Hap replies. “Even [IA] doesn't want [feces] like Dobbs back on the street.” Everybody knows Dobbs is guilty, you see.

But Dormer also understands that all his prior cases will be jeopardized if Hap cooperates, and he expresses in no uncertain terms his disgust with his partner for deciding to do so.

The next day, Dormer, Hap and several Nightmute cops are in hot pursuit of Kay’s murderer along a rocky, fog-shrouded shoreline. Dormer accidentally shoots Hap, who dies in his arms — convinced that his own partner shot him in retaliation for his decision to cut a deal with IA. Of course, Dormer easily convinces his Nightmute colleagues that Hap was shot by the fleeing killer.

But the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), witnessed the shooting and knows it was accidental. He also knows that Dormer will try to pin it on him. So he calls Dormer to express his sympathies — and to assure Dormer that his secret will be safe with him, so long as he works to convince the Nightmute cops that Kay — and now Hap — were both killed by Kay's high school boyfriend, not by Finch.

Now the race is on between Finch — the creepy, pathetic perv who seems to genuinely believe that Kay’s death was every bit as accidental as Hap’s — and Dormer, the renowned, “honorable” LA homicide detective who must manipulate the evidence to support his “innocence” in Hap’s death — everyone knows he’s innocent, you see — and implicate Finch instead.

Insomnia is an extremely well-crafted psychological crime drama that defends the vital importance of personal integrity. This is probably one of my favorite films — I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But after seeing Insomnia back when it first came out, I also began to consider how our society’s unbelief — our refusal to accept God’s word in faith — might cause us to excuse doing injustice in the name of justice, and thus, to deify the State. Maybe we would prefer to see a possibly innocent man punished in this life — even if a Detective Dormer has to “strengthen the case” against him to assure a conviction — rather than to allow a possibly guilty man to go free in the full confidence that, even if he escapes judgment in this life, he will face God’s judgment at the Last Day.

• Next post: “Unbelief and the Deification of the Civil Magistrate: Woodard v. Wade”