HBO’s The Night Of: This Ain’t No ‘Law & Order’

An extraordinary limited-run series recently concluded on HBO. The Night Of is a show about a murder and a trial, but it’s unlike any other crime drama on television in America for a multitude of reasons. This ain’t no Law & Order. It’s a show that exposes the utter darkness at the heart of America’s criminal justice system.

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The Night Of begins by introducing us to Nasir Khan, or Naz for short (Riz Ahmed), who is a college student in New York City, and a Muslim. We’re briefly introduced to his family, get a glimpse of his daily routine at school, and see that he’s a pretty typical young adult. He wants to fit in, he’s excited about being invited to a party, and he’s at the age where childhood has begun to transition into adulthood leading to an inevitable friction with his parents and their restrictions.

Naz’s friend, who was supposed to be his ride to the party, bails on him at the last minute. In a fateful decision, Naz takes his father’s taxicab without permission and heads off to the party anyway. He gets lost, and he doesn’t know how to turn off the cab’s “on duty” sign. When he pulls over to get his bearings a couple guys hop into the back seat thinking he’s a real cab driver. He kicks them out of the cab, but when a beautiful, mysterious young woman opens the door and sits down in the back seat he can’t bring himself to get rid of her as well.

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Naz is intrigued by Andrea, the mysterious passenger, and he soon forgets about the party he was trying to find. Instead, the two drive around for a while, stopping a few times before ending up back at her house. Andrea invites Naz inside. They do drugs, have sex, and a few hours later Naz wakes up and finds her stabbed to death in her bed. In a state of shock and panic he flees the scene, but is detained by police almost immediately afterward on suspicion of DUI, and is linked to the murder a few hours later.

What really makes The Night Of something special, what sets it apart from most other crime dramas and investigation shows, is the very deliberate pace it establishes from the outset, which allows for an in-depth look at the fine details of the American justice system that most other shows would casually gloss over or skip entirely. It takes its time, allowing the narrative to slowly unfold. If this were an episode of Law & Order, the first 45 minutes of Nasir Khan’s story presented in The Night Of would be condensed into a formulaic 90 second cold open, followed by practically omniscient, slick-talking detectives arriving on scene and immediately rushing into their routine as they go about solving the crime.

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The Night Of isn’t that sort of crime procedural, which are almost always told exclusively from the point of view of the police. It does explore a murder mystery, but it’s not really “about” solving the crime so much as it’s about the experience of being pushed through the legal system, told mostly from the perspective of the accused and his defense team as they face a seemingly hopeless battle. The Night Of is an in-depth analysis of the justice system in the United States, and the murder mystery is merely the device through which the show skewers the system.

As Naz passes through various stages of the legal system, Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, the creative force behind the series, linger on many seemingly unimportant things. We see how a police precinct is run in the middle of the night, and the boredom of suspects and witnesses waiting around to be questioned or booked. We see police officers who are already tired after pulling a double-shift being forced to work even later when all they want is to go home. We are shown in detail the process of an arrest. Not just the taking of fingerprints, but having your body inspected as an extension of the crime scene, being photographed head to toe, being questioned before legal representation has been arranged, waiting in holding cells, the process of being funneled straight to jail before you’re convicted of anything, the music being played in the cab of the prisoner transport vehicle which sounds muffled to the prisoners in the back, and the boredom of the prison bureaucracy as they ask their routine questions and stamp the same forms over and over without a second thought for the people being warehoused.

The dehumanizing process of being stripped of your dignity and tossed into a dark, cruel cage is shown in haunting detail. The fact that it’s depicted as just a matter of bureaucratic routine makes it all the more striking.

Most crime dramas, especially on television, focus almost exclusively on the investigators and prosecutors (in other words, the representatives of the state) who of course work earnestly to discover the truth and seek justice. The Night Of completely blows up this format in a variety of ways.

The vast majority of the show’s focus is on Naz’s experience as a suspect, prisoner, and defendant, as well on his lawyer’s efforts to uncover the truth about what happened on the night in question and to come up with a robust defense in a case that seems like a slam dunk for the prosecution. John Stone, the defense attorney who initially takes an interest in Naz and his case and fights for him until the end, is played by John Turturro, who turns in an instant classic performance. Amara Karan plays Chandra Kapoor, another young lawyer motivated by compassion for Naz.

Not only does The Night Of shift the focus away from the representatives of the state in a literal sense, in that the cops aren’t the protagonists, it also dares to break away from the ideological default in TV crime dramas, where the police and prosecution are shown to be well-meaning and genuinely interested in real justice. Rather, to the extent that the police and prosecution are featured, they are depicted as reflexively seeking a conviction, and doing whatever needs to be done to achieve that single-minded goal, rather than being primarily concerned with what is actually true and what is not. Naz is the only suspect considered by lead detective Sgt. Box and prosecutor Helen Weiss prior to the trial, simply because it seems like an easy win for the state, even though Naz’s lawyers are able to identify three other possible suspects through their own investigation (and a fourth is revealed later on).

The show also spends a great deal of time fleshing out Naz’s experience in prison, which is something that is almost always ignored on the average crime drama. Typically, the suspects are only shown in prison through the glass of the visitation room when the detectives need to ask them more questions. On The Night Of, however, the difficulties of adapting to life in prison are brought to the forefront.

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Because of the nature of the crime Naz is accused of, he quickly makes enemies behind bars and is subjected to a series of threats and attacks. It is likely he will be severely injured, and possible he will actually be killed unless he makes a deal with the devil, so to speak. The most powerful inmate in Naz’s cell block, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), takes Naz under his wing and provides him with protection in exchange for helping to smuggle drugs into prison. In the process, Naz becomes addicted to drugs, gets several prison tattoos, and sinks deeper into the hopelessness of prison life in a variety of ways.

The show forces the audience to confront the harsh realities not only of prison, but of the criminal justice system as a whole. From the very beginning, even though defendants are supposed to have the presumption of innocence, it’s clear that the deck is heavily stacked against Naz in all sorts of ways. Virtually everyone involved assumes he is guilty, and simply having their son be accused of murder causes all sorts of harm to the Khan family. Naz’s father can’t get his cab back because the car is being held as evidence, and therefore can’t earn a living. His mother is fired from her job because her son is accused of murder. Naz’s parents have to sell their valuables and are forced to take low paying jobs in order to make ends meet. Because of this financial hardship inflicted upon them through no fault of their own, simply because their son is accused of a crime, they are unable to afford a lawyer.

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Even when a high-powered defense attorney agrees to take the case pro bono, she too assumes Naz is guilty and only tries to strike a plea bargain rather than actually defending her client to the best of her ability. When Naz insists on fighting the charges and maintains his innocence, she quits, and the Khan’s are forced to face financial ruin in order to pay for a defense for their son. It isn’t a coincidence that the most affordable option for the family would be for Naz to confess to the crime and beg for a lighter sentence. The system is fundamentally unfair to the poor, because having limited finances encourages defendants to strike plea deals strictly because it’s so expensive to go to trial with a competent defense team.

The idea that people are innocent until proven guilty is a nice concept in theory, but The Night Of reveals it to be an empty platitude. What good is the technical presumption of innocence if the practical reality for defendants and their families is the destruction of their lives regardless of the outcome of the legal process? It calls into question the very idea of freedom itself. Can a people truly be free if they live in a society where merely being accused of a crime is nearly as horrific and destructive as actually being convicted?

Most television crime dramas don’t invite this sort of contemplation. Most shows accept the system at face value, identify primarily with the perspective of the police, and the suspects are rarely well developed characters. Shows like Law & Order are primarily about the experience of the police and prosecutors rather than the experience of those who go through the system. The Night Of flips this dynamic on its head. It focuses on the details of the system in a way that allows for analysis and reflection on the kind of society we live in, it identifies primarily with the perspectives of the suspect and the defense, and it illuminates the experience of going through the legal system in a visceral, terrifying way.

Ultimately, the show articulates how the judicial system itself can actually create criminals. Even those who are acquitted don’t escape unscathed, as their lives can end up shattered almost as if they were convicted. The Night Of is a show about how the system grinds people up, and how everyone involved is just a cog in a massive machine, in a way that diffuses blame and accountability. Everyone just does their job, and no one in particular is at fault for the way the system chews people up and spits them out. In the end, we’re left with a profile of a truly horrific system, regardless of the outcome of Naz’s case.

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What makes Naz’s lawyer John Stone a hero, what distinguishes him from the other cogs in the machine, is that he makes a conscious decision to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of the truth on behalf of his client, to go beyond his established “place” in the system as a low rent lawyer. He refuses to settle and he doesn’t give up, even when others give up on him. Unlike everyone else, he doesn’t simply assume Naz is guilty from the start. In fact, he doesn’t even want to know if Naz is guilty or not. But he dedicates himself to the truth, investigates leads that the police ignored, puts himself into dangerous situations in pursuit of other suspects, even though it would have been easier to just let Nasir Khan get thrown to the wolves. No one would have blamed him.

In the age of mass incarceration in America, The Night Of is a profound achievement. Artistically it’s as good as anything on television. It perfects a visual aesthetic defined by slow, steady camera movement and an attention to detail through visual storytelling. But what makes the show so vitally important right now is its unflinching profile of a horrific and cruel criminal justice system, designed primarily to benefit those in power at the expense of those it oppresses, as well as at the expense of genuine justice existing in society.

The Wolf of Wall Street “Missed the Boat Entirely”

TheWolfofWallStreet_iTunesPre-sale_1400x2100There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street where a Forbes magazine article is published about the story’s central protagonist, Wall Street con-artist Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort is enraged by the “hatchet job” that calls him out for his deceptive practice of selling practically worthless penny stocks for huge commissions by misleading faceless victims on the other end of a phone. He thinks the article will ruin him, but his wife calms him down by saying that all publicity is good publicity. She turns out to be right. Following the article’s publication Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, is swarmed by people looking for jobs, and his business grows exponentially.

That Forbes article was intended to be a damaging exposé, but it backfired, just as Scorsese and DiCaprio’s film itself is backfiring now. If the tandem, now on their 5th collaboration, are to be believed, they set out to make a film that shines a light on Wall Street corruption and greed. But that’s not the film they actually made. Not by a long shot. And The Wolf of Wall Street, like the Forbes article in the film, appears much more likely to inspire, rather than discourage, another generation of materialistic greed and exploitation.

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In 1987, Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street put the phrase “greed is good” into the cultural lexicon while attempting to skewer the financial sector. Gordon Gekko was the film’s villain, meant to personify everything wrong with 80s-era excess, but to a generation of people looking to get rich quick, Gekko’s catchphrase became a powerful mantra. Jordan Belfort himself was among that wave of young people who flocked to Wall Street in those days. While Belfort never utters the phrase “greed is good” directly, he fully embodies that mentality, openly instructing his subordinates to take money from their investor’s pockets and put it in their own without any regard for the client’s well being, all while indulging in the most hedonistic lifestyle possible.

Belfort innovated a method of selling cheap stocks to unwitting investors, retaining a 50% commission on the trade, manipulating the stock price, and then leaving the investor holding the bag when the bottom falls out of the stock. The brokers cash in while the investor’s go into debt. Belfort champions a ruthless approach of hard selling and pumps up his team with daily profanity laced inspirational tirades before the market’s opening bell.

the_wolf_of_wall_street_trailer_tWatching The Wolf of Wall Street is comparable to being run over by a freight train, in all the worst ways possible. Everything about the film is long, loud, and obnoxious. There is no subtlety or nuance, every performance is paper thin, and virtually every scene is longer than it needs to be. The Wolf clocks in at just under 3 hours of headache inducing parties, sex, drug use, and yelling. Lots of yelling.

What’s important to understand about this is that simply depicting certain behaviors isn’t necessarily the same thing as condemning them. In order to condemn what’s being depicted an artist needs to provide the proper context, and The Wolf of Wall Street is totally lacking the necessary context to condemn the activities of Jordan Belfort and his band of cronies. According to DiCaprio and Scorsese, who are now on the defensive about the intended message of the film, the audience is supposed to witness the reckless greed, misogyny, and debauchery on screen and come away with the idea that those things are wrong, but they never give any context to guide the audience to that view.

Without proper context, showing drug-fueled orgies with prostitutes set to music is a glorification of that behavior. Without proper context, showing ruthless stock market manipulation and fraud for personal gain at the expense of others, which allows for extravagant lifestyles complete with enormous yachts, beautiful women, all driven by a “fuck everyone” mentality, is glorification, not condemnation.

As a side point it should be mentioned that the film puts a huge number of nude women on display, but the only glimpse of a male sexual organ is a half-second shot of Jonah Hill masturbating in public, and the anatomy shown is almost certainly a prosthetic. It says a lot that the film is willing to objectify women so blatantly on screen while preserving the men’s dignity, even as they engage in very public sex acts. Besides looking totally unrealistic, it demonstrates the ongoing double-standard women face in society.

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DiCaprio, who was recently quoted in an interview by Hitfix, said that those who accuse the film of glorifying Belfort’s activities and lifestyle have, “missed the boat entirely.” He goes on to say, “I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior.” But this is not the case, and it’s actually DiCaprio and Scorsese who have missed the boat.

Ironically, in the same Hitfix interview, he explains exactly why Scorsese made a film that lacks the context needed to give the story the meaning he claims was intended. “The unique thing about Marty,” DiCaprio says, “is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are.”

What is difficult to understand here is how Scorsese and DiCaprio thought they could make a film that condemns the financial activities and hedonistic lifestyle Jordan Belfort exhibits without personally judging him in any way. By making a film free of moral judgement, told exclusively from Belfort’s point of view, which entirely ignores the suffering of his penny stock scam’s victims as well as the larger context of Wall Street corruption, we’re left with a movie that effectively glamorizes everything it shows. The closest thing to a victim shown in the film is the secretary who is paid $10,000 to shave her hair off for the entertainment of the whole office, and even that is within the office’s walls, oblivious or indifferent to the suffering they’re causing outside.

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Granted, a lot of things eventually go wrong in Belfort’s life. He gets divorced twice, he sinks a yacht, almost watches his friend suffocate while high on drugs, loses millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account, and ultimately spends a short time in a country club prison. But no true tragedy befalls him. No real lesson is learned. At the end of the film Belfort isn’t remorseful about the damage he’s done or the lives he’s ruined, and he even starts a lecture series teaching others how to get rich. This positive ending is shown in the film without any irony or judgement, and as the film comes to a close it becomes obvious that The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3 hour love letter to Jordan Belfort. What else could it be without the moral judgement of the film maker and the proper context to show the audience the real damage people like Belfort do to the world?

The saddest part about all this is that as wild and reckless as Stratton Oakmont is shown to be, Scorsese never clearly illustrates that Belfort and his buddies are just small potatoes. Why even bother to tell this particular story without making the point that it’s just a tiny microcosm of a much larger systemic problem? Unless, of course, the real intention is to glamorize and glorify Belfort and people like him.

The fact that he’s not Goldman Sachs and that he has a “fuck you” attitude toward the larger Wall Street firms seems to be something that Scorsese admires, as if Belfort is some sort of noble renegade outsider fighting against the system. It’s easy to get the sense from the film that Scorsese empathizes with the “anti-establishment” mentality and the creative cut-throat business practices Belfort employs. But even if the director doesn’t personally condone Wall Street greed and corruption, there would be no way to know based on his self-admittedly judgement free film that refuses to show the real fallout of Belfort’s actions and the true context of the story.

The audience gets 2 hours and 45 minutes of wild partying, sex, and drug use, 15 minutes of Belfort’s mostly consequence-free “downfall,” and 0 minutes spent on the proper context that would give the story a more meaningful point about the nature of the system, or on the damage Wall Street greed does to other people. All the audience sees is how Belfort is effected, and he comes out pretty well in the end.

Scorsese and DiCaprio created a film which allows everyone to superimpose their own morality to the subject matter and render their own verdict. If you’re someone who thinks Wall Street greed is ugly and wrong, you might imagine you’ve just seen a film that agrees with you, because it depicted all the behavior you already oppose. On the contrary, if you’re someone who thinks it’s okay to make a profit for yourself and live a life of luxury and excess, everyone else be damned, this film is also for you, because it shows just how glamorous that life can be, without judgement.

It’s obvious that Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to make a big film. It does take some artistic risks, but in most cases they fail, mostly because the film has no positive moral position to reinforce. So the party rages on, and after a while, the bloated, obnoxious film feels like a hammer crushing your skull. It’s not pleasant, and given that The Wolf of Wall Street totally missed an opportunity to say something important about the times we live in, it’s not worth the pain.

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Unlike the Forbes “hatchet job” that angered Belfort before it helped him grow his business by leaps and bounds, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book written by the wolf himself. Belfort’s account might have been honest about his wild behavior and his willingness to scam people to enrich himself, but it’s definitely not a hatchet job of any sort. This film is designed to ultimately make Belfort look pretty good, and it will likely help to enrich him even more by promoting his lecture series. All publicity is good publicity, after all. DiCaprio even went out of his way to shoot a promo for Belfort’s real life speaking engagements in which he lavishes the man with praise, even though he still owes restitution to many of his victims.

Given what The Wolf of Wall Street is, as well as what it isn’t, and the fact that DiCaprio supports and promotes Jordan Belfort in real life, it’s safe to assume that when Scorsese and DiCaprio try to make the case that their film is meant to condemn the behavior it depicts, rather than glorifying it, that they’re lying. It is uplifting to note that critics as well as the general public are calling them out for their dishonesty and putting them on the defensive. Those people, like the daughter of one of Belfort’s co-conspirators who wrote an open letter opposing the film, are not the ones who missed the boat entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese did, and it’s a good sign that a lot of people aren’t buying what The Wolf is selling.

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