End of Watch revisited: What’s a cop in a world full of anti-heroes?

Facebook reminds us of things we did and things we wrote. Many of these things are not really noteworthy of anniversaries. I wrote this reflection about seeing End of Watch (2012) two years ago for The Lawn Chair Boys blog.

One of my earliest film memories is of the time when my parents allowed my sister and me to watch George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) on VHS. The frozen image of the two title characters running, guns drawn, to meet their deaths is, if not an image I was biologically crafted to like, then an image that crafted my taste in films from that moment forward. I could not understand how these two outlaw heroes could not simply blast their way towards survival. How could they not be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker? How could they not beat the odds? The image both disturbed and haunted me. The image became something by which to judge the merits of other films.

At the time, I didn’t understand the film’s historic significance. I knew nothing of the New Cinema or the American Renaissance. I had yet to see Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I didn’t understand the history of white and black hat archetypes and how they had been undone. I only understood that Butch and Sundance seemed like the best of friends and for that, in my mind, they deserved life. I was grateful the film froze them before their blood-splattered doom. Of course, this moment is the only time in the film where they run towards danger rather than away from it, if only because they ran out of real estate a long time prior. The American West was not an endless space, but a place where both geography and individuals, as archetypes, had an expiration date. The films of the late 1960s understood how visions of utopia disintegrate.

For most of David Ayer’s End of Watch, I thought little of these earlier films despite the early evidence that it, too, is not only a film about those inside and outside the law but a buddy cop film taking place in Los Angeles. Perhaps the reason for not initially seeing this connection is how the bromance between Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) appears to be so in tune with the comedic chords struck by any of Judd Apatow’s films starring any combination of Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, or James Franco. The difference, however, between End of Watch and any Apatow production, besides the seriousness of the violence, is that Officer Taylor and Officer Zavala are young men who accept responsibility rather than running away from it. In this sense, despite their badges, they are like Butch and Sundance not so much in their leaping from a canyon wall but in their sprinting towards the Bolivian military. And therefore, they are doomed by their heroic friendship and its sense of agency.

These two officers not only hold down jobs but they hold down jobs that demand sacrifice. But, even in the City of Angels, they appear as the only individuals with wings. And the cost of their devotion is that their own families chastise them for dashing into burning buildings with the sole intent of saving other people’s children and not their own. Thus, their sense of duty, while creating a more harmonious city, undoes the harmony at home. And mark the heroism in End of Watch as fairly conservative and old fashioned. After all, ever since the New Hollywood took over in the late 1960s, or maybe even so early as when Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) cast off his badge at the end of High Noon (1952), Hollywood audiences have grown accustomed to the anti-hero — so much so that the archetype is perhaps no longer a sign of rebellion but the status quo. In contemporary times, the sane and sympathetic individuals run. And, more often than not, all individuals are either cowardly or corrupt. Perhaps these traits are the realities of the human condition. Or, perhaps, they too are reductive. Real heroes can — and do — exist, even if not in great number.

Despite the prevalence of aesthetic realism in End of Watch, Officers Taylor and Zavala appear much more in kind with comic book escapism. They are much more like Batman and Superman than any real depictions of current law enforcement one might see in the news. Even though they don badges instead of capes, they appear more like Avengers in their willingness to defend a city’s populace. Their sense of justice, when compared with a film like Fruitvale Station (2013), is something rather arcane in the Greek sense. But these officers are more Spartan than Athenian. Hence, they see themselves less as representatives of universal suffering and as part of a sacred brotherhood. Moreover, these two, in their sense of heroic honor and duty to protect, are not the officers who slay the Walter Scotts and Eric Garners of the world. Instead, these two earn the respect of the citizens they are both in service to and in opposition of in much the same way as The Wire’s Bunk and McNulty, only their senses of morality are never quite so in question. They are young men, but they are antiques in the modern world of both Training Day (2001) and Ferguson. And, as such, they are outliers even as they wear the uniforms of justice and genre.

Interestingly enough, the film’s first shots are from a camera mounted to a patrol car. Transparent justice is their ethos. In this vein, Gyllenhaal’s Taylor also carries a personal camera with him while he and his partner serve watch (as do the cartel gangsters in the film). However, this transparency is not met with gratitude by their peers. Several law enforcement officers demand that Taylor not film them, hinting at the notion that to be filmed is to be exposed. In this sense, the officers are not like the film’s cartel outlaws who relish digital testimony as proof of their violent exploits. Thus, Taylor’s willingness — and Zavala’s as well — to be transparent further marks both men as outsiders within the dominant police culture. Their heroism is old school and respected by all those wearing the badge. Yet this willingness to bear witness and to accept responsibility marks them as extraordinary officers who are also rebellious outcasts. While they possess a tendency towards elitism, film audiences can forgive any signs of hubris because their eyes (through Taylor’s camerawork) become our eyes.

In comparison, Gyllenhaal’s more recent film, Nightcrawler (2014), also places a camera in his hands, and, while his filming the injustices of southern California in Nightcrawler renders him a parasite, it also sees him well-compensated by a local news network. More importantly, he gains power from what he can do with a camera, and, in this sense, he and anyone who partakes in his blood lust becomes a vampire. In Nightcrawler, his stealthy movements through an L.A. mansion and crime scene provide both a sense of documentation and exploitation. He handles the camera in the same manner that Humprey Bogart’s stints as a private dick might handle a gun, peering around corners and creeping up stairwells. The camera is therefore signified as a weapon of noir cynicism. In End of Watch, however, a similar scene unfolds, in which Officer Taylor manipulates the camera like a firearm, discovering, like in Nightcrawler, a scene of unspeakable cartel violence. Yet this nearly identical act of discovery brings about strikingly different results in each film.

Blood in Nightcrawler is tragedy for consumption. The audience may be disgusted by Lou Bloom’s exploits, but they also do not want him caught. He is corrupt, but he isn’t cartel evil corrupt. Therefore, while disgusted by him, we also become disgusted with ourselves for watching him. On the other hand, blood in End of Watch is a witness to the cartel’s violence and society’s chosen ignorance of said violence. Moreover, tragedy in End of Watch serves as a reminder as to why the police are a necessary force in modern society. While outlaws like Butch and Sundance die in search for freedom, Taylor and Zavala provide the safety that frees individuals within violent hegemonies. Thus, where order once brought death to the American West, order is now the only means of survival in America’s most Western city.

Currently, in both cinematic and political discourses, the law is not popular. Both public opinion and cinema aesthetics appear to have indicted all authority as corrupt. End of Watch is not a film that dares to speak truth to power. Yet the film is daring in its attempt to speak a rather simple and unpopular truth: Good cops not only exist but sacrifice themselves every day for the protection of ordinary citizens. We need to remember that, even as we become more and more mindful to how every citizen may not be equally protected. Even as we demand justice for those individuals wrongfully slain by those wearing badges, we need to remember how those badges are also necessary.

End of Watch, with its duct-taped children in closets and amputated bodies of immigrants, is a stark reminder of how every day on the job for those in blue is one of duress. Things seen can seldom be unseen. These stresses do not give cops the right to shoot and kill at will, but understanding these stresses is vital to understanding cops as something other than mere cogs operating on a daily basis within racist institutions. They are humans first and foremost, and they often pay a hefty price for the crimes others commit. Nothing about the current climate is simple. History and personal experience hang like a fog. Cops, too, are victims, even if the experience of victim hood is not the same as those too frequently victimized by law enforcement.To this reality speaks End of Watch’s opening monologue:

I’m the police. And I’m here to arrest you. You’ve broken the law.
I did not write the law. I may even disagree with the law. But I will
enforce it. No matter how you plead, cajole, beg, or attempt to stir
my sympathies, nothing you do will stop me from placing you in
in a steel cage with grey bars. If you run away, I will chase you. If
you fight me, I will fight back. If you shoot me, I will shoot back. By
law, I am unable to walk away. I’m a consequence.

Films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may help us to sympathize with those facing the consequences of their actions. However, like those living outside the law, those living inside it also have their backs against a wall. They are also alone. And their very existence is a consequence of institutions and individuals who refuse the pursuit of the good.

Bryan Harvey can be followed @Bryan_S_Harvey.

Originally published at lawnchairboys.blogspot.com on April 16, 2017.