I’ve found comfort in procedurals including State of Play, Spotlight, Miss Sloane and Denial, but now I’m moved by doubts about how they fit into an increasingly extreme political climate, writes our arts contributor Olivia Scott-Berry.
I enjoy a good procedural drama. So too, it seems, does much of the rest of the British public, with viewing figures for the fifth series of Line of Duty reaching 13.2 million this year. The genre has had a long ascendancy, featured in everything from televised crime novels and long-standing series following labs and courts to a new crop of films and programmes that combine a central focus on proceedings with big budget action and underlying themes of morality.
Watching procedurals has been a continuous thread in my life. As a naïve teenager I watched the West Wing with my parents, comforted by its warm paternalistic appeal; as an angst-ridden young adult, I consumed somewhat bleaker police dramas set all over Europe, curled up on the sofa alone. Both gave me a similar kind of comfort, despite differences in tone. Recently, I have found the same comfort in films concerned with the democratic process in America, from the journalistic scrutiny of State of Play (2009) and Spotlight (2015) to the sharp takes on governmental and legal processes in Miss Sloane (2016) and Denial (2016), respectively. Now, however, I am moved by doubts about how their approaches fit within an increasingly extreme political climate to ask what it is about the procedural that is so attractive.
I begin with a personal question. Why was I so drawn to a genre that generally deals with topics that I, an anxious person, should want to avoid? I compared the approaches to difficult subjects of the procedural films that I had enjoyed with those of the ones I hadn’t. Spotlight follows a journalistic investigation into cases of historical sexual abuse step by step. Wind River (2017), on the other hand, features a highly visual, dramatised depiction of an FBI investigation of sexual violence that appeared not just salacious but brutalising. It seemed that I felt able to watch scenes of horror and tragedy when they felt properly and respectfully investigated and presented.
More than that, it was comforting to watch the process of such investigations unfold through the artistic techniques of film and television. One obvious reason is that the very motions of such a procedure, played out logically one after the other, are soothing, rewarding the viewer on a narrative level as well as a moral one: terrible things will be found out and put right. This speaks to what I think underlies my enjoyment: a deep faith in a meaningful process of investigation in art and reality, one following from the other. To my mind, the two were almost inseparable, due process in narrative reinforcing a belief in the power of agencies of law and order to protect us. Could such magical thinking be true? To unpick its idealism, I would have to look clearly at what the procedural was doing in each case, what it allowed and assumed, and the larger philosophies behind it.
Spotlight, for me, represents the gold standard of the procedural. The film has no drama other than that of reporters following up various instances of negligence, through a paper trail of cases, to uncover a policy of concealment and perpetuation by the Catholic church in response to paedophile priests. In this way, it not only avoids the kind of prurience seen in Wind River but conveys a more forceful critique of the harm done, focusing on the issue rather than the violence. State of Play is immediately a few steps away, in technique. Journalists Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye’s (Rachel McAdams) investigation into the death of a researcher involved with a Congressman takes place alongside (and is involved in the ongoing perpetration of) the crime, and, so, is reliant on that drama for its own. This means that the comparatively cheap thrills of car chases and shocking reveals are prioritised over the proceedings of the investigation, which, after the initial set-up, are increasingly sped up and blurred in order to reach key plot points.
This contrasts with the approach of the 2003 six-part British television series of the same name that was the basis for the film. Solving the crime here is a much longer, messier process, with more interaction with the police, for one – more competition and confusion over whose role it is, precisely, to carry out the procedures. These are two different approaches to the procedural itself: where the US version allows audiences to feel smart and smug, following along with Crowe’s maverick journalist, only to pull the rug from under us in service of entertainment, the UK original trusts viewers to follow its multiple threads, consistently revealing how grimy and thankless the business can be.
Both approaches merge in contemporary dramas like Line of Duty, which combines filmic aesthetics and a visceral level of shock, as well as complex storytelling grounded in detailed process. Though it was easy enough to dissect the politics behind both versions of State of Play as based in different national stories of character, (the journalist as action hero and methodical discoverer of truth, among the more banal), I felt more unsure about the uneasy promise of both. I wanted to lay bare the ideology behind it, since it seemed to me like the very type of liberal idealism that has recently been found to be so lacking. In an increasingly critical public discourse over issues like race, gender and class, multiple figures, parties and ideologies based in the moderate positions that characterised liberal politics for the last two decades have been shown to have failed to have done enough not only to combat far-right extremism, but also to examine and change their own attitudes, in service of a centrism which sustains problematic power dynamics.
Miss Sloane illustrates this pragmatic attitude at work. From the start, it is apparent that Jessica Chastain’s underhanded political lobbyist is not going to be our principled hero. She is also not entirely without scruples: the film shows her decision to step away from her current firm, which is being courted by the NRA, to support the underfunded, unpopular opposition. The morality of her actions continues to be debatable, though in the end we are meant to support her, as she vindicates herself by indicting the bad practice in the government at large that enables her form of lobbying.
Here, the drama of crimes tracked through the frame of a congressional hearing is enhanced by the slick aesthetics, which draw the viewer in alongside Miss Sloane as Chastain moves crisply in her razor-sharp white-and-navy through yellow-and-brown Washington. This palette is one of the hallmarks of the contemporary American political procedural, from The West Wing to House of Cards, and, as such, a way to pinpoint and critique this wider ideology. These colours are reassuring because they evoke the traditional places from which men have ruled: the oak-lined rooms, the yellow sandstone and steely navy suits of rational diligence and enlightened progress, and such grand narratives of ambiguous actions taken under the guise of a greater good can no longer go uninterrogated.
This is perhaps most apparent in Denial, a fictionalisation of the attempts by lawyers to defend scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) from claims of libel by Holocaust-denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Initially, Lipstadt is frustrated by their doggedly procedural approach, and the audience is encouraged to be too. We watch from her perspective as lead barrister Richard Rampton appears impassive and rational on a fact-gathering visit to Auschwitz, and refuses to let her or any Holocaust survivors testify because if they do Irving will make a spectacle of the interrogation and catch them out on minor points that will nevertheless make for undermining headlines. The film ends, however, by vindicating this approach, when Rampton’s careful cross-examination, built on lengthy and careful research, proves the case and shuts down Irving’s outrageous tactics, deflating his lies and conflations with step-by-step logic. I found Denial thoroughly reassuring to watch in this age of breathtakingly ignorant and arrogant posturing on the world stage, until I began to think about the fact that such procedures in journalism, law and art have done nothing to alter the actions of leaders like Trump.
The tactic of not rising to Irving is an act of self-denial, as Rampton describes it to Lipstadt. But haven’t we come to a place where we see that emotional responses to deep-seated and ongoing injustices are valid? Don’t we realise that we cannot keep asking people to quash their rage for the benefit of order, to keep things following one after the other as they ‘always have’, to keep prolonging rotten systems? Is it enough to smugly point out where people have gotten things wrong and made distortions – to just, as Rampton says with exhausted finality to an Irving still denying his racism, “look at the words on the page” – when there are now many people in public office who will cheerfully acknowledge the words while twisting the discourse, only winning more support for their hateful views? Do we have the time? It is not that we should stop attempting to address and represent these iniquities, just that the procedural is perhaps, as a mode still reliant on unwavering faith in systems, no longer the right form. At the very least it needs to investigate its own procedures.
- Feature image: Line of Duty (Series 5), 2019. Courtesy of BBC / World Productions. Photograph by Aidan Monaghan.
- Miss Sloane (2016), courtesy of Participant Media First Look Media Anonymous Content Rocklin/Faust Productions Spotlight Film Distributed by Open Road Films.
- Spotlight, courtesy of First Look Media.
- State of Play (2009) Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
- The West Wing (1999-2006) courtesy of NBC.