Serpico, last year's movie of an honest cop in New York, is back in the Square for a return visit. Cops'n robbers flicks have been a dime a dozen lately, but Serpico oontinues to stand out as one of the best; its strong action plot combines with surprising subtlety of character to make it a movie well worth seeing again.
At least part of the movie's interest lies in the fact that Serpico was a real cop, whose allegations and testimony of police corruption lead to the creation of the Knapp Commission investigation of New York's finest. And as in the movie, Serpico ended his career with a bullet in his head--just barely escaping with his life-received under rather questionable circumstances during a narcotics raid for the NYPD.
The show's real appeal, however, lies in its depiction of an idealist trying as an individual to take on large-scale institutional corruption. This country has watched for months as various investigators have inched their way towards the truth about the Nixon administration; one wonders if it would have been any easier if there were any Serpicos in the White House.
Not that it would have made much difference, though. Serpico is an excellent portrayal of the impossibility of one individual taking on an entire system. He is frustrated at every turn as he attempts to report the wide scale corruption he witnesses. No one, from his captain to the mayor's office, is willing to do more than warn him to be careful. Veiled threats turn quickly to violence, both in the movie and the real world. Institutions bear down mightly on dangerous individuals. Serpico illustrates some of the consequences of this process.
The movie is a study in tension. Despite the lack of a surprise ending, suspense increases scene by scene as it becomes more apparent that Serpico is a thorn in the side of the police department. Making an arrest in plainclothes, Serpico is fired on by uniformed officers who don't recognize him as a cop. The scene develops almost humorously, with Serpico crouched in a corner, frantically waving his badge and shouting "police officer," but the point is unmistakably made that his life is worthless to any enemy on the force.
This tension takes its toll on Serpico's personal life. He loses one girlfriend, then another; he is friendless on the job. His isolation and paranoia increase as he is left alone and brooding, and he buys a bigger and better gun to defend himself with. By the time he is finally shot, he seems near madness from the accumulated pressure.
Serpico is a good movie not only because its filled with personal drama and suspense, but also because it points out in its own way why Watergates exist, and why they are so difficult to root out and dispose of. Much has been said of the White House "atmosphere" in which so many illegal activities have taken place. Certainly only an extraordinary individual. perhaps only a movie hero, could fight such an atmosphere, resist participation in illegal activities, and hang on to his job at the same time.
The pressures that Serpico endured--the isolation, the threats on his life--would certainly come down hard upon any individual who tried to expose Nixon's wrongdoings. This administration is not known for its sympathetic treatment of dissenters; and anyone who threatened to blow "the plan" would rightly expect to be treated roughly. In a sense, it is surprising that anyone talked at all.
After painstaking and sometimes ludicrous deliberation, the Judiciary Committee finally voted an article of impeachment against President Nixon. In doing so, it had to confront one of the most galling difficulties of investigating corruption: in dealing with a pattern of behavior or a type of "atmosphere," there are likely to be few if any specific acts which can be definitely proved illegal.
The only witnesses to this sort of crime are the participants themselves. That the Watergate story produced serious consideration of impeachment at all is due largely to the incredible existence of the tapes; without them, it would be Nixon, Mitchell, Haldeman, et al. against a few hardly-impeccable types like John Dean.
Serpico's most difficult move, and the one that finally succeeded, was taking his allegations above the police department, to "outside agencies"--the mayor's office, and then The Times. This was his unforgivable sin, the one that finally led to his being shot.
Richard Nixon has continuously resisted letting the Watergate affair be examined by anyone but the White House itself, but due to the persistence of the press, it is now being investigated by the House of Representatives as well as a special prosecutor's office.
There are those who will doubt, and with some justification, that the House of Representatives is an "outside agency." Its members are all politicians, all eminently susceptible to the same failings as Nixon. The barely bipartisan nature of Saturday's vote on the first impeachment resolution is hardly reassuring to anyone trying to believe that objective truth is any criterion in the House's investigation. But take it or leave it, that's all there is. Whatever shortcomings the impeachment process may have, the country is stuck with it, at least this time.
Serpico is a story of one man taking on large-scale corruption, and winning. He never flinches from his white hot idealism, never once considers leaving the force and taking up some other business. Perhaps the movie is more realistic because he gets shot in the end, quits the force and leaves the country. But it's still a movie.
In a humdrum scene at the end, he testifies to the Knapp Commission that there are plenty of honest cops, men like him who would like to come forward, but can't because of the atmosphere of fear and violence. "Atmosphere" again.
One man can't create an atmosphere, and one man alone can't change it. Even if we had a Serpico, as prosecutor, as chairman of an impeachment committee, he alone couldn't get rid of Nixon or the corruption that he stands for.
But wouldn't it be nice.