In Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs argues that national emergencies result in expansions of government authority that partly persist long after the crises have passed. A similar effect can be observed in popular culture. Though we seem to be experiencing a lull in the war on drugs, at least so far as the news media are concerned, the years of Just Say No and zero tolerance may have permanently narrowed the range of what is acceptable on network TV and in big-studio films.
No more Cheech and Chong, that's for sure. No current movie is likely to include, even in passing, a lighthearted treatment of illegal drugs, along the lines of the cocaine scene in Annie Hall or the pot scene in 9 to 5. And it would certainly be surprising if a major film questioned the war on drugs.
So it was interesting to see what happened to Kim Wozencraft's novel Rush on the way to the screen. Not surprisingly, its implicit critique of the war on drugs has been obscured. But it's difficult to say whether this was deliberate or merely the by-product of artistically smart but morally obtuse creative choices. In adapting the book, screenwriter Pete Dexter and director Lili Fini Zanuck made all the right cuts. They condensed the plot, used composite characters, edited out the commentary and introspection, and lopped off the story just after the climax. In the process, they heightened the drama and sharpened the focus. They also deleted the message.
The result is an artful, compelling, but ultimately pointless film. The casting is right on target, the performances are sharp, the scenes are vividly realized, and the score (by Eric Clapton) provides the perfect ambience. But the experience of watching Rush is captured in the title: powerful and quickly over, with no lasting significance.
From the book's cover (cocaine scattered on a red background, partially obscuring a badge) to its gritty scenes and clipped, streetwise dialogue, Rush is obvious movie material. Based on Wozencraft's experiences as a Texas narc, the book follows Kristen Cates from her introduction to drug-law enforcement through a series of undercover investigations that ultimately lead to her conviction on perjury charges. The film rights went for $1 million.
In broad outline, Rush is not much different from dozens of other stories about drugs and police corruption. But its details add up to a scathing indictment of the war on drugs. That indictment is lost in the translation to film, largely for good cinematic reasons. The book's questioning of the drug laws takes place mostly inside Kristen's head, an internal dialogue that could only be suggested on film unless the script included a running narration that would have seemed intrusive. Simplification of the story did away with many of the other clues to the change in Kristen's attitude toward prohibition.
The result is a muddle. Rush is certainly not gung-ho about the drug war, but neither does it make a statement against it. Or any statement at all, for that matter. Even within the constraints of a two-hour movie, Dexter and Zanuck could have tried to say something as well as tell a story. At the very least, they could have paid attention to the moral implications of their plot and character changes.
In the book, for example, the person whom Kristen comes to hate more than anyone else is the chief of police, Donald Nettle, a vile drug warrior with no concern for justice. Ostensibly a religious man seeking to protect the town's children, he is really interested only in advancing his career and pursuing personal grudges. Though the movie shows Nettle (Tony Frank) to be hypocritical and corrupt—pressuring Kristen (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her partner, Jim (Jason Patric), into faking a case—he is more comical than sinister. The real villain of the film is the menacing Will Gaines (Gregg Allman), the pornographer and suspected drug dealer whom Nettle wants framed. The movie begins with Gaines, and Jim and Kristen track him through most of it. The ending, which is a major departure from the book, focuses on him as well.
The treatment of the story's victims also detracts from Wozencraft's criticism of the drug war. The book distinguishes between drug offenders who are basically harmless and drug offenders who are also guilty of theft and violence. One of the former is Walker, an amiable construction worker with "a low, soft voice, full of the yes-ma'am courtesy of a shy cowboy." Just before Walker becomes an informant under the threat of a 40-year prison sentence, Kristen observes: "This guy did not need to go to jail.…Working undercover on this kind of defendant made me feel like a meter maid."
Although Walker (Max Perlich) remains a sympathetic character in the movie, he becomes a car thief as well as a small-time drug dealer—an amusing car thief, but a thief nonetheless. With the exception of a few briefly glimpsed characters, all of the other drug offenders in the movie are nasty, violent, hairy-knuckle types. In the book, Kristen recalls a conversation with another narc: "We had traded war stories, and then, from nowhere, he said, 'Yeah, I met some pretty good people. And the thing was, well, I don't know. Did you ever get the feeling that they were the ones who were right?'" No one watching Rush is likely to get that feeling.
The blurring of the distinction between drug crime and real crime continues in a crucial confrontation between Kristen and Walker. She tells him that he'd better go into hiding because the cops are about to bust the people he has helped set up. He refuses, saying, "I'm fucking ashamed. You understand?" Having betrayed his friends, Walker feels that he doesn't deserve protection. His shame has broader significance, assuming his friends were guilty only of victimless crimes. But this point is easily lost, given the movie's general portrayal of drug offenders.
In the book, Walker tries to protect his friends by cutting deals for them, but he feels no compunction about turning in genuine bad guys. So his confrontation with Kristen has a clearer meaning. "This may sound weird," he says, "but I'm not ashamed of what I've done. I mean, okay, I'm a dope dealer in the sense that I take care of a few friends. That doesn't mean I like burglars and thieves. You got a lot of them, and that's fine by me. I'm not ashamed."
Kristen, on the other hand, is. But the film underplays or ignores her guilt over the routine aspects of drug-law enforcement: lying, entrapment, betrayal, hypocrisy. Instead, it plays up her drug addiction. We see her transformed from a naive, fresh-faced police recruit into a pale, strung-out, needle-marked junkie little different from the people she is supposed to catch. In the book, this physical degradation parallels a spiritual descent prompted by the warped morality of the drug war. In the movie, it's purely a personal matter.
What broader point should the viewer draw from Kristen's predicament? Clearly, not all narcs are drug addicts. The publication of Rush helped revive the debate over how common it is for undercover cops to use illegal drugs at all. (In the book and the movie, this is standard practice, a way of allaying dealers' suspicions.) But regardless of how often police officers actually take illegal drugs, they routinely buy and sell them; that is how they make cases—by violating the bans they enforce. Everyone who participates in the war on drugs has to face this central contradiction.
The blurb that runs above the title in ads for Rush gets the nature of Kristen's dilemma precisely wrong: "Somewhere between the buy and the high…they forgot they were cops." The implication—that if only they had remembered, if only they had done their jobs right, everything would have been OK—is completely at odds with the message of Wozencraft's novel, that the drug war is inherently corrupting.
Without this insight, it's hard to make sense of Kristen's disillusionment. "By the time Kristen discovers there's not much difference between the two sides of the law," writes L.A. Weekly critic John Powers, "you may feel you've seen it all before." Unfortunately, he's right.
Jacob Sullum is associate editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies: Narc Adaptation".