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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.


Feature article

Moral Pragmatism and Public Perception: The "Bad Cop" in Insomnia

by Paul R Joseph


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.

To 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 right outcome.

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? Not really.

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

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