From the opening dialogue in which Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) explains his rabid position to government hostage negotiators to the final scene in which an Arabic terrorist is murdered to "protect the American Way of Life,"  Dominic Sena's film "Swordfish" is an intricate web of ethical and moral dilemmas.

          Though the surreal situations exaggerate real life, the diseased patriotism used to justify the violence resembles more the logic of a Timothy McVeigh than an Oliver North.  Suggesting that to protect our freedom against terrorist attacks we must have a secret, violent and immoral clandestine army is a justification that fails moral reasoning.

          The central character is a brilliant computer hacker named Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), whose ability got him arrested and his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes) taken from him.  With an addicted ex-wife who has taken custody from him, Stanley's desperation to reunite with his daughter makes him vulnerable when he is approached by Ginger (Halle Berry) to help hack into the international banking's internet system to steal nine billion dollars.

          The mastermind behind this operation is Shear, a ruthless man who has none of the usual constraints that morality and compassion provide.  He makes the lives of innocent people pawns in his alleged campaign to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.

          The level of Shear's immorality and ethical emptiness is clear from the beginning of this film, which uses graphic violence and illicit sexuality as the glue that holds the action together.  When an innocent hostage and the police officers attempting to save her are killed, his reasoning is simple: the cost of a few innocent lives to build an arsenal to protect Americans from terrorists by assassinating them is ethically justified.

          Sacrificing the lives of the few to save the lives of the many is often assumed to be a higher level of moral reasoning.   But as it is twisted in the thinking of Shear, and exploded onto the screen, it gives a clearer picture to the logical extension of that faulty reasoning.

          If the killing of human life is justified in the cause of some greater good, then who is to define what that greater good is to be?  Is "the American Way of Life" a good that is worth killing a few innocent Americans to protect?  Is retaliation against terrorist attacks a good that justifies an army of assassins funded through thievery and deceit? And if human lives are expendable in order to maintain a standard of living or a "way of life," then where does such killing end - with our own citizens, children and friends?

          When Jobson is forced to assist Shears in order to save the life of his daughter and Ginger, it is clear that he puts protecting human life as the ultimate good and does whatever is necessary to save their lives.  This is shown as the only morality that can see us through the morass of opinions produced by our political, ethical, legal and cultural plurality.

          If we become a world in which the pragmatic immorality of Shears becomes justification for our violence, then we will be a world where we will bomb cities to win wars and kill children to protect our economic "way of life."  It is clear that such a culture will destroy itself in its misguided attempt to protect itself.

Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 2 STARS, UNSETTLING.