‘Elite Squad’ And The Moral Imperative Of Criticism

I always like to check out certain movie sites after I watch a film. It’s fascinating to read trivia or to get a taste of what others have thought of a movie before I put my own brand of criticism on it. When it comes to Elite Squad (original title Tropa de Elite), checking sites like Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDb brings to light a fascinating  trend pertaining to its ratings. IMDb has the movie rated at 8.1/10, the exact same score as its sequel, whose 8.1/10 lands it on the famous Top 250 (movies of all time) list. Right below that, we can the movie’s Metacritic score, pulled from the opinions of professional critics, gives the movie a score of 33 (out of a possible 100). Going back to the opinions of the common rabble, Metacritic users gave the film a score of 8.9 (out of 10), earning the distinction of having “Universal acclaim.” Rotten Tomatoes sees a similar rift between its critic and user scores. Among the professionals who are paid to talk about movies, only 53% gave Elite Squad a positive review, with the average rating coming in at 5.1/10. On the other hand, 87% of Rotten Tomatoes users were willing to recommend the movie, with their average rating of 4.1/5. Audiences, it would seem, love this movie, where critics are either watching it in a different way or are reluctant to put their stamp of approval.

One factor could very easily be the sheer number of ratings that are being taken into consideration. There were only 7 people whose opinions went into forming the Metacritic score of 33. Compare that to the 119 users who took the time to share their opinions. Critics make up about 5% of the total opinion and it could just be a coincidence that these 7 people happened to be ones for whom the movie didn’t exactly resonate. The same could be true over at Rotten Tomatoes where the 34 critic reviews are utterly dwarfed by 16,209 user opinions. On this site, critics make up around .2% of the assessments being made on this movie. Even allowing for coincidence there does still seem to be a huge disparity between critics and audiences.

So maybe it has something to do with why these people saw these movies in the first place. It’s not as though everyone rushed out to see, or even had access to, Elite Squad back in 2007. It’s a Brazilian movie that I, in 2014, hadn’t heard of until I started making a point of watching movies on the IMDb Top 250 list. If you compare Elite Squad’s Rotten Tomatoes to the Oscar winner for Best Picture of the same year, No Country For Old Men, you can see the kinds of numbers a popular movie elicits. 34 critics on RT covered Elite Squad, compared to 237 for No Country. Similarly, Elite Squad‘s 16,209 regular schmo reviews are absolutely eclipsed by No Country‘s 390,031. When seven times more critics and twenty-five times more regular joes and josephines have seen the movie, the data pool is deeper so it makes sense that there would be a more consistent consensus. Typically, critics will review a movie because they want to write something that people want to read about. For a movie that was released in the States a year after its Brazilian debut, in so few theatres that it only made $8,000, there isn’t much incentive to see the thing in the first place. For some writers, it was likely assigned to them. With a movie like this, the general public has no professional obligation to see the movie. Since it wasn’t available in wide release, it stands to follow that the only people who watched it (all 16,000 of them) were people who intentionally sought it out, more than likely because they heard that they would like it. The types of people who actually watched this movie are the same types of people who would like to watch this kind of movie.

But, I still don’t think that this covers the whole story of what’s happening here or why we see such a difference between critical and public opinion. A lot of the negative criticism that is leveraged against Elite Squad deals with its treatment of police brutality. In the movie, the titular “Elite Squad” is a special forces unit in Rio de Janeiro called BOPE. They are a highly trained and hardened group of police officers, tasked with handling the most violent and dangerous criminal forces. Whenever we see BOPE go out and do its job, they barge into the slums, guns blazing. Bodies fall and people are tortured.  As the clean-up crew for Rio’s slums, the squad acts with total autonomy. Throughout, we are given justifications for their actions by way of a voice-over narration from a BOPE captain. According to him, conventional policework, especially when implemented by corrupt officials, simply no longer works in the war on Brazil’s drug trade. That’s where BOPE comes in.

This apology for violence and torture is incredibly uncomfortable for critics to support. When someone writes a positive review of a movie, the article, or even just the star rating, implies an endorsement of the film. Along with that endorsement can come an implication of support for the ideas expressed within the film. At this point, the critic needs to decide whether they want to talk about either whether something is a good or bad movie in an aesthetic, film-watching experience sort of way or whether it is a good or bad movie, considering its moral implications. I can’t imagine too many critics who would feel comfortable putting pen to paper and writing about how Elite Squad is a breath of fresh air in our fight against the protection of criminals. The content of the very reviews we are talking about demonstrate an unwillingness to endorse police brutality. They refer to its fascist ideology and refuse to apply any kind of seal of approval to the product.

Audiences get to experience movies more passively. Since I’m an amateur (at best) in my criticism, I found that the movie’s ability to convince me of the necessity for violence in trying to disestablish the criminal networks of Rio was a sign of good film-making, not bad. Especially after finding out that the movie was created in co-operation with real members of the BOPE squad, it felt more like an exposition of how out of control things have gotten rather than a propaganda piece for waterboarding. Within the film itself there are clear signs that this is not the world that people want but it’s the one they have. The same captain who spends his time justifying the need for police violence is also constantly in the midst of a total breakdown. He suffers from panic attacks and spends the entire movie trying to find a replacement so that he can leave his violence profession behind. Elite Squad is not meant to be a ringing endorsement of torture, it’s a tragedy about the the seemingly indestructible system of drugs, corruption, crime, and violence that accounts for far too much of what it means to live in Brazil.

[Update: 02/21/2017: In rereading this piece, I find myself more sympathetic with the critical refusal to endorse the movie on moral grounds. It seems that I argued that critics have a moral responsibility to decide what they promote and what they don’t but then follow it up by defending Elite Squad as a well-made movie, regardless of what it says. I still haven’t learned enough about the drug war in Brazil to form my own opinions but I do have a better appreciation for having reluctance to slap a seal of approval on a movie with such willingness to justify a near-military level armament of police to be used against civilians.]

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