When the credits rolled at the end of the new RoboCop remake last week, I did a double take at the director’s name: José Padilha.
It turns out he’s a Brazilian filmmaker who took over the project when Darren Aronofsky dropped it. My eyes bugged out because his handle is so close to José Padilla, the American citizen who was for several years denied a trial because the Bush Administration labelled him an enemy combatant.
This accidental reminder is far from the only thing the movie has to say about politics and civil liberties.
RoboCop is one long warning that Big Robot is Watching. Set in the near future, Padilha shows us a world that has been “pacified” and dominated by the US military with the invaluable help of private contractor OnmiCorp, manufacturer of its death-dealing droids.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a television talk show host meant to resemble Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, if they were fascists. In the beginning, the Pentagon allows Novak’s network to do a report from the streets of pacified Tehran. Things do not go well. A bunch of locals take on the robots. All are massacred, including a child holding a kitchen knife.
Pentagon PR folks abruptly end the video feed to staunch the flow of toxic publicity. Novak is undeterred. Why, he asks, if robots have done such a great job pacifying the rest of the world, are they not allowed by law to do the same on American soil?
The only roadblock is a sort of reverse-PATRIOT Act, the Dreyfuss Act, which prevents the use of robots for law enforcement on American soil. Novak presents this as a relic of the past and paints its chief defender, Senator Hubert Dreyfuss, as a bow tie-wearing liberal dinosaur whose defense of free will and civil liberties is dangerously out of touch with this new and dangerous world.
Novak’s and OmniCorp’s efforts to repeal the Dreyfuss act are central to the movie. OmniCorp decides to reconstruct bomb victim Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), of Detroit PD, essentially as a publicity stunt. As OmniCorp’s vaguely Steve Jobsean CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) frames it, “We’re going to put a man in a machine.” And they are going to use that “tin man” to push for the repeal of the Dreyfuss Act.
This conspiracy turns RoboCop into a pawn in a much larger game. His handlers are able to make him succeed only by making him even less human. As his record of arrests piles up, OmniCorp and Novak bring pressure to bear on the United States Senate to pass repeal legislation and send in the drones.
Even as RoboCop is used for propaganda purposes, he fights against his own programming. In rooting for him, the audience sides with an honest cop, his wife and son and the few folks who still believe civil liberties matter against the well-organized forces of the American answer to Big Brother.
It’s the heavy-handed libertarian movie of the year.