Misinformation cinema: The danger of films like ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’
Why do we go to the movies? Often it’s to escape — to let the lights go down and get lost in a story. Sometimes we watch a movie up for awards, usually so that we can talk about why we thought the awards were wrong. Other times — perhaps less often than we should — we watch films about social issues, to empathize with people with vastly different experiences.
Last year, I saw a movie that checked none of these boxes. It was too confusing and poorly-written to function as an escape; it certainly wouldn’t be up for any awards. And though it purported to explore current world events, it actively distorted them.
The film I’m talking about is Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Sicario franchise — violent action thrillers centered around border issues in the United States and Mexico. The first one, well-received by critics, starred Emily Blunt and was directed by Denis Villeneuve, the artful French-Canadian director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.
Soldado was not directed by Denis Villeneuve, and perhaps that is why it lacks the ambition of the first film. And though Soldado was deplorable in many capacities, there’s a lot to learn from the power of a narrative which actively undermined the truth, especially when it came at the expense of thousands of migrants.
To explain why Soldado was problematic is not difficult — I just have to summarize the first few scenes.
The movie opens with: Exterior, Rio Grande, night. A Border Patrol helicopter flies overhead as a mass of migrants sprints toward the U.S. Then, close on: a man lays out a prayer rug and starts praying. And as American forces surround him, the praying man detonates a bomb in his chest.
Weird, right? Buckle up.
Cut to a nameless suburban store which strongly resembles a Target or CVS. A group of men walk into the store. Two of them blow themselves up, killing or knocking out most everybody. Well, almost everybody. There’s this mom and her kid, and she begs the last terrorist, who has yet to detonate, to stop. He detonates; they all die.
Then we cut to Josh Brolin’s CIA character interrogating a Somalian pirate in the Persian Gulf, accusing the pirate of a zany plot involving smuggling Islamic terrorists across the Atlantic, so that they can cross the U.S.-Mexico border and pursue terrorism on American soil.
But before you know it, Brolin returns to Washington, where the Secretary of Defense asks him to spark a war between the cartels. Why? No one really knows. But the movie keeps going, so Brolin recruits Benicio del Toro, the titular sicario from the first film, to help him. (The Sicarii were Jewish Zealots who fought against Roman rule in the 1st century CE, more recently the term has come to mean ‘hitman’ in Spanish).
You can’t make this stuff up, but apparently someone did.
Set against all this confusion is a subplot where an El Paso teen is trained to become a coyote, showing us snippets of scenes of this teen smuggling migrants across the border. While interesting and certainly with some potential for explaining what this process might be like to a mass audience, this whole section feels like an afterthought. Because of the dubious nature of the juxtaposed episodes, it also appears to be completely unreliable.
I could continue, but it’s clear this movie was a storytelling disaster. Its narrative was neither effective nor responsible.
Whereas the first Sicario movie presented a dark look at Emily Blunt’s FBI agent caught up in a war beyond comprehension — a film that, in its better moments, examined the brutality and absurdity of the War on Drugs — Soldado seemed to have harvested its plot threads from as many paranoid fake news articles as possible and jammed them into one movie.
By juxtaposing the movie’s main focus on the drug war with an uneven, problematic commentary on illegal immigration — as well as distracting and counterfactual elements involving Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists — Soldado presented conspiracy theory as truth.
It also conflated the War on Drugs with illegal immigration, and while the two phenomena certainly have a complex relationship, such nuance is impossible in Soldado, where several xenophobic movie premises were flattened into one, reprehensible flick.
Irresponsible storytelling and fake news
It could have been easy to write off this film, if not for the fact that, the stories we tell as writers shape our world. When stories about current events diverge so far from the truth, it’s easy for the powers-that-be to appropriate them for their own ends.
This past January, President Trump tweeted that prayer rugs had been found at the border, causing several journalists to consider the possibility that our self-proclaimed very-stable-genius had confused Soldado with reality. Of course, Trump has also asserted that Category 5 hurricanes are unheard of, that Frederick Douglass is still alive and well, and at least one point thought that coyotes — the species of canine, not the smugglers, had been infiltrating the American border — so it’s not a huge surprise he might have thought Soldado was an elaborate reenactment starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars.
And yet, Soldado was profitable, earning $75 million on a $35 million budget; naturally, a third film is in the works. We know that the film industry is an industry, and if this film made money, more will be made like it. And in a vacuum, the only narrative broadcast will be the one that exists, even if it’s wildly inaccurate. Let’s be clear — how many major studio films have been released about the border?
Traffic? Sin Hombre? The Mule? Suffice it to say, after you take out cowboy movies, there aren’t a whole lot to go around, and the majority in the genre usually focus exclusively on drug violence.
One prospective solution might be to flood the market with responsible stories about migration. When it comes to writing about social issues, writers need to tell the stories of stakeholders with care. They must acquire and inhabit their perspective. Where possible, storytellers should interview migrants, agents, and decision-makers. Additionally, writers have tools — poetry, journalism, narrative, character, theoretical lenses — that people on the ground might not have, which writers can pass on, so that they might be better equipped to tell their stories themselves—and thus flood the market with more reliable information.
In this day and age, we need smart stories about these issues, in this exhausting presidency that undermines our ability to care about the children who have been separated from their families, locked in cages, and in the worst cases, have passed on.
Those deaths need to be far more real in the eyes of the public than the imaginary Islamist suicide-bombing deaths of civilians at a suburban store.