(Spoiler alert: if you want to see the movie called Compliance with no prior idea of the plot, stop reading now. If you feel you'd be enthralled by the film, as I was, with a general knowledge of what it's about, read on.)
The cruel hoax shown in Compliance depends, as many critics have said, on deference to apparent authority of a man pretending to be a policeman ("Officer Daniels"), but an even more striking feature of the movie is the many tiny steps he takes to reach his goal. If he'd started by ordering the person on the other end of the phone, the manager of a fast food restaurant, to get a man to strip-search a female employee, a search that leads to a real crime, the manager might have come to her senses and taken the obvious step -- asking for the phone number of the "officer" so she could call back, after checking with the police department that he claimed to represent.
Here's the plot, which I couldn't discuss the movie without revealing: A man claiming to be a police officer tells the manager of the restaurant that a client has just testified that the restaurant's cashier stole money from her purse. He further says a surveillance team saw the theft. The manager does not doubt the authenticity of the call, perhaps because the man speaks in the coaxing abstract procedural style that we associate with "professionalism" ("I need you to...").
The allegation becomes fact ("Becky stole money"). The manager is thus set up to isolate the employee and not only examine her purse, but ask her to strip. Then the frightened, innocent young woman has to be guarded because the "officer" can't come right away: he says he is searching her house to find marijuana grown by her brother. The cashier should be guarded by a man, who is presumably strong enough to prevent any escape of the fragile young woman.
Of the staff and friends of the fast food outfit, two refuse to follow the voice on the phone. They are both men, one of them a young friend of the attractive young cashier who doesn't want to get involved, and the other an older worker on the day shift who stops by for "one of those frostie things."
What the movie focuses on showing is the horror of blindly following orders. A man's voice claiming to be an officer must be who he says, right? The police must never be abusive, right? Doubt about positive answers is properly emphasized by the very structure of the movie and by critics.
The readiness of most people to comply with authority was demonstrated in the famous Milgram experiments, first published in the early 1960s. Asked to cause a series of increasingly painful electrical shocks to a person failing a memory test, a surprisingly high percentage of Yale students and later of townspeople in Bridgeport kept to the protocol, encouraged by the nearby experimenter saying, when necessary, in ever stronger terms, that it was necessary to go on. Milgram was inspired, in part, by the trial in Jerusalem of Eichman, who said he was just following orders that led to the Holocaust. It is more disturbing to think that great harm can be done not out of anger or the desire for revenge, but out of simple obedience.
What Craig Zobel's movie shows, excruciatingly, is that people's reluctance can be overcome by salami-slicing, by suggesting small steps -- none of which seem totally shocking, even though the final effect of all the steps is ghastly.
Is the American public the victim of such a method? We would be if fear, say of "terrorists," caused us gradually, over years, to erode the freedoms for which our ancestors once fought; if we put on the statute books and in executive orders police state powers that people didn't expect actually to be invoked.
Many of us don't question the right of police routinely to strip search anybody who is arrested. In the movie, the alleged crime, stealing from an open purse, was non-violent and did not involve "drugs." Yet the plot depends on the manager accepting the argument that of course the "officer" could take the cashier to the police station and strip search her, so given his alleged business elsewhere, and the embarrassment of a formal arrest, why didn't she do it, or induce somebody on the scene to do it?
In a recent case called Florence v. County of Burlington, the Supreme Court decided, by 5-4, that the Fourth Amendment does not forbid incarceration officials from routinely strip-searching anybody arrested for a minor crime, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of contraband. As often, the deciding vote was Anthony M. Kennedy, who as the swing vote in many cases, wields enormous power. Three of the four dissenters were the women on the court.
In the movie the believers of the phone call are women (plus the fiance of the manager); and the protesters are both men. A young man tells "Officer Daniels," "You can't make me do this shit," and the older one, Harold, tells him "I don't know who you are, but I don't think it's right..." In the Milgram experiments, a much higher percentage of people gave what they thought were the highest shocks than the percentage of people in the movie who went along with the caller.
Before the half-way point of the movie we are shown the fake officer (earlier we just hear his voice), who is at one point making lunch for himself in a kitchen. The real police are later shown as heroes, devoted to caring for the traumatized cashier and to catching the phone hoaxster. I'm sure that most officers are decent people, like my uncles who were cops, but what about the power they've now been given by the Supreme Court routinely to strip-search people arrested for minor and non-violent crimes?
These victims could, of course, include people demonstrating on behalf of what they call the 99 percent. Do we want to herd demonstrators into "free speech zones" and then humiliate them by strip-searches, while infiltrating provocateurs into their ranks? What does this do to the right of legitimate protest and, in the words of the Constitution, the right of the people peaceably to assemble?
By all means, see Compliance. Even if an officer is real, what ought he or she have the power to do? How do we guard against the tactic of achieving in little steps what would be resisted if suggested or ordered all at once? What is the flaw in the often-heard and seemingly logical argument that if you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about, that provisions will be used only against the guilty?
During my brief exposure at law school, I argued a moot court case on the side asserting that evidence flowing from an illegal search was "fruit from the poisoned tree." The opposing side argued that it was socially costly to let off a person known to be a criminal just because the "good guys" used tough tactics to find the truth. But what is to stop guys from using the same tactics to convict somebody they assumed was guilty but wasn't?
Once the manager accepts the authority of the voice on the phone as a police officer, she would tend to keep acting on that belief, unless presented with clear evidence. She eventually hears that evidence and is clearly shocked. Perhaps she would in future check the claim and not immediately act on it. It is clearly Craig Zobel's hope that viewers of his movie will do likewise. But what about the harder case, not of a hoaxster, but of an actual police officer stepping over the line? What about the line being shifted by one vote on the Supreme Court? What about the widespread fear manipulated by politicians that allows such a decision to seem reasonable? What about the need for an enemy?
As a citizen diplomat traveling in the 1980s to what was then the Soviet Union, I was intrigued by the mischievous perspective of a top official there talking about the end of the Cold War: "We will deprive you of an enemy." After an uneasy decade following the dissolution of the USSR, we were given 9/11 and again had an enemy apart from the Soviets. As we had the Nazis before, we had the Islamic extremists afterward. The enemies were all real, but has our response always been wise?