October 18, 2013

Friday Review: Compliance

Some movies are labeled “inspired by a true story” to avoid lawsuits and distance the film from the real life inspiration. Others are labeled that way because, if they didn’t, you’d think “there’s no way this kind of shit could really happen.” (Still others do it just to fake you out).

Compliance needs the label because what happens on screen shouldn’t ever happen in real life, but it did.

Between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s there were a string of incidents – more than 70 in all – in which a man would call some retail establishment, claim to be a cop, and convince a manager to “investigate” an underling for some alleged offense. The orders included a strip search, confinement while waiting for the “police” to arrive, and a constant search for purloined funds (for a lengthy article about the scam see here).

Compliance dramatizes the basic outline of one of most heinous incidents – one that progressed so far that it included forced oral sex and cavity searches. Along the way, it asks an awful lot of questions about why people do things others tell them, based on nothing more than what the courts call, in another context, “apparent authority.”

Compliance tells the story of Becky, a 19-year old front-counter employee at a nondescript chicken-based fast food joint. Her manager, Sandra, has lots of things on her mind - $1500 in spoiled food, a “fiancĂ©” who won’t pop the question, and a parcel full of unenthused teens for a workforce – when a man calling himself “Officer Daniels” calls. He accuses Becky of stealing from a customer within the last hour. He also claims that he has the customer with him, that there’s video surveillance of the whole thing, and he’s got Sandra’s boss on the other line. Won’t she help him with this investigation?

Of course she says yes, even though she’s seen nothing to suggest Becky is a thief. The caller uses that initial agreement to drive Sandra (and, eventually, her would-be fiancĂ©) into being his agent on the scene, doing all sorts of degrading things to Becky in the name of “clearing things up” and keeping Becky from being taken to jail.

One of the interesting dynamics in the film is how there are multiple levels of “compliance” happening. First, and most obviously, there’s Sandra who acquiesces to the authority of an alleged cop and, to a lesser extent, her boss. Second, there’s the dynamic between Sandra who has to both bring some of her employees into the action or, at the very least, fend off their questions about what’s going on. In the end, they defer to their boss. Finally, and more esoterically, there’s the entire idea that regular ideas about how the world works should come to a grinding halt in order to secure evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It hangs over the people involved here just as much as it did to folks in Boston when parts of the city were locked down following the Boston Marathon bombing.

Particularly fascinating to my defense lawyer brain was how Sandra used the certainty of Becky’s guilt to keep her own underlings in line. The incident as described by the “cop” doesn’t really make any sense – as several other employees point out. It would have caused a huge scene and the allegedly wronged party would’ve sought out Sandra to complain (indeed, we see another customer complain about a poorly made sandwich – it’s a tough crowd!). Nevertheless, whatever doubt Sandra has about Becky’s guilt is suppressed on behalf of a clear narrative – there’s been a crime, I’m in charge, don’t fuck with me.

In the end, a little bit of skepticism on Sandra’s part would have gone a long way toward averting the whole situation. A simple call to her superior or to the police to confirm the investigation (we learn in a postscript that the police station is only a few blocks away) would have put an end to the farce from the beginning. But that requires the ability to disbelieve, which is hard for some people to do, particularly when it comes to people presented as authority figures. Compliance shows how far some people will go without pushing back against that kind of authority.

The Details
Released 2012
Directed & written by Craig Zobel
Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, et. al.

October 2, 2013

We Won! But We Still Suck!

Sorry, this post isn’t about my alma mater’s football team, who managed a complete turnaround to dump Oklahoma State last weekend. Although, hey, woo-hoo for that, right?

No, this is about the stunning cap to the horrible year another of my sports crushes has had, that being DC United. Take a look at the current standings in MLS’s Eastern Conference and you’ll see why:

Not only are they at the bottom of the standings, they’d have to stretch quite a bit to even be the next-to-worst team in the table. For comparison’s sake, the walking disaster that is Chivas USA, the floor in the West, is on 26 points. What’s even worse is that DC had a great surge at the end of last season, returning to the playoffs and making it to the Eastern Conference final (vanquishing NYRB along the way – joy!). Things should have been better this year, or at least not this much worse.

Which is what makes last night all the more confounding and impressive.

This season marks the 100th year of the US Open Cup. This is the American equivalent to the English FA Cup and similar competitions across the world – knock-out competitions (as opposed to league play), generally open to a wide swath of teams from various levels within the country. Essentially, it’s a national championship. It’s fabled, particularly in England, for matches when the lower-division underdogs upset the top-division fat cats.

Well, last night, DC knocked off Real Salt Lake – first place in the West, 1 point behind NYRB for tops in MLS – in Salt Lake to win this year’s Open Cup, 1-0. The lowest of underdogs knocked down Goliath. Thank you, Lewis Neal, for the goal!

As a DC fan I am, of course, quite pleased. It doesn’t erase the turd of a season the team’s had in MLS, but hardware is hardware and hopefully it will be a springboard leading to turning things around next year. But it does make me wonder if such an upset is part of what keeps the broader American sporting public from caring about the Open Cup. After all, the final was consigned to broadcast on GolTV, which isn’t even available on DirecTV or Dish Network anymore. That’s disappointing in an era when soccer is widening its reach on “real” TV – why, even this past Sunday, NBC took a moment during their primetime NFL pregame show to run through the Premier League scores from the weekend.

Honestly, I think the whole process confuses casual fans. In American sports there is one competition, one goal. Every NFL team has one preferred endpoint for the season – winning the Super Bowl. There is no ancillary glory to be won along the way. An English Premier League team, on the other hand, begins the season looking at several ways to win glory – the league itself, the FA Cup, the League Cup, not to mention European competitions. At the end of the NFL season, there is one champ to rule them all. By next spring in England there will be several.

So I’m not sure that the Open Cup fits well into the consciousness of the typical American sports fan. Which is a shame, because it’s a competition with a rich history that rivals the World Series or Stanley Cup and is more ancient than anything professional football or basketball has to offer. It deserves more attention.

And, hey - my team won it this year!