Moral Pragmatism and Public
Perception: The "Bad Cop" in Insomnia
by Paul R Joseph
CAUTION: CONTAINS "SPOILERS"
By the time legendary detective
Will Dormer (Al Pacino) arrives in a backwater Alaska town to
investigate a murder that has stumped the local talent, he is
already doomed. Internal Affairs in his hometown, Los Angeles,
is sniffing close to his secret, that he planted evidence to
gain the conviction of an alleged murderer. His partner, Hap
(Martin Donovan) is about to cut a deal and spill his guts. It
will all come out and Dormer's legacy, the evil criminals he
has sent to jail, will be lost-the filthy scum will likely be
released. When Dormer accidently shoots his partner in the Alaskan
fog, witnessed only by the murderer he is trying to identify
and bring to justice (author Walter Finch, played with understated
calm evil by Robin Williams), Dormer is locked into a sleazy
dance of deception and cover-up which exposes the price of the
initial evil and leads to Dormer's eventual death. By the time
he cautions straight-arrow Alaskan cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank)
not to lose her own way as he has lost his, morality triumphs.
Or does it?
In order for Insomnia
to work, Pacino's Will Dormer must be a believable and a sympathetic
character. He is both-and perhaps too much so.
be believable, we must accept that Dormer, who is revered in
police circles, whose cases are studied and whose words are memorized
by worshipful Alaskan cop Ellie Burr, is also a law-breaker who
planted evidence to obtain a conviction. We believe. A combination
of real-life events and media popular culture make this leap
no problem at all. The Ramparts Scandal in Los Angeles and the
lingering doubt about the blood samples in the O.J. trial remind
us that cops don't only get it wrong, sometimes they make it
up. Popular culture responds with N.Y.P.D. Blue's Officer
Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), a cop very willing to use force-and
who knows what else?--to get to what he understands to be the
As believable as Dormer is,
he is also sympathetic and the only clear voice in the film.
Like Sipowicz, we know that Dormer is not a bad cop. In fact,
he is a very good one. The people he arrests are guilty and he
sees what most others do not. Yes, he planted evidence, but it
was in a case where the evidence of guilt was clear to him (but
might not be to a jury). Nowhere in Insomnia is there
a hint that the defendant was innocent. The jailed criminals
who might "walk" if Internal Affairs brings Dormer
down are guilty, too. Do we want the evil criminals to walk free?
Dormer argues, with all the
power that Al Pacino can bring to a character, that the end justifies
the means. If a little blood must be planted to bring to justice
an evil child murderer, it's worth the price, says Dormer. Perhaps,
in a different context, the argument would be that if a little
torture has to be used to catch a terrorist . . .
Internal Affairs is that department
which is charged with investigating police wrong-doing and law-breaking.
They are the cops who protect us from the cops. They ought to
be our heroes, but they are not. Pacino's Dormer saves his greatest
contempt for the Internal Affairs officers who are on his trail.
To him they are cops who aren't on the streets, aren't facing
the dangers and aren't protecting the public. They are the cops
who don't have the stomach for the job real cops do. Dormer makes
this case several times in long and impassioned soliloquies.
There is not much presented to dispute him. The Internal Affairs
cop appears only by telephone from L.A. and comes across as unlikable,
a tormentor seemingly more concerned with self- promotion than
morality and justice. He's a weak voice compared to Dormer's
eloquent, angry street-wise outbursts.
The arguments against Dormer's
position are presented non-verbally: first through the dedicated
professionalism of Ellie Burr; second, through Dormer's own self-torment
and his progressive breakdown, as sleeplessness and guilt swirl
together; third, by the sleazy bargain between cop and criminal
to preserve Dormer's secret; and, finally, by the fact that it
all leads to Dormer's destruction and his one-line plea to Ellie.
But is this enough to make the case for good or is it all susceptible
to another more subversive explanation?
Obviously, it's Dormer's prior
misdeed that leads to his partner's death and to his own; or
is it? Causation being the slippery little devil that it is,
could it not be argued that without the intervention of Internal
Affairs, Hap would not have been about to turn State's evidence
and Dormer would have been able to admit his accidental shooting
of his partner? There would have been no need to do anything
but arrest Walter Finch. The events leading to Dormer's death
would themselves never have taken that path and Dormer would
be putting more evil-doers away on the streets of Los Angeles.
Is the real wrong his law-breaking or is it the fact that we
wouldn't turn a blind eye to it? Despite everything, it's for
Dormer that we feel emotion, not the off-camera one-dimensional
Internal Affairs pursuer.
Dormer changes his view only
at the moment of his death, cautioning Ellie not to lose her
way, not to throw away a shell casing that will bring the true
story out. Perhaps she shouldn't toss it because even such a
small act would lead her inexorably to her doom just as Dormer
has been led to his. Yet, it could be argued that by that point
both Finch and Dormer were or shortly would be dead and the only
result of Ellie's moral rectitude, aside from possibly saving
her soul and integrity, would be to open up exactly the parade
of horribles-masses of criminals going free to prey on society-that
Dormer has railed against throughout the film. Perhaps it could
be argued that Ellie's inner peace isn't worth our safety. At
least, an audience might come to that conclusion.
This isn't what the film explicitly
presents to us, but the elements of this counter-analysis are
there-lurking just out of reach. Is the quiet professionalism
of Ellie Burr enough to convince us that the bad guys can be
brought to justice without breaking the rules? Is the destruction
of Will Dormer enough to convince us that our law enforcers must
avoid the lawbreakers' road? Possibly, but Insomnia leaves
room for doubt and for much soul-searching late at night when
it's impossible to sleep.
Posted: May 29, 2002