I really wanted to see Tony Scott’s take on The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 not because I had any expectations of it being a great movie but because his movies are so interesting visually. I wanted to see the spectacle of Scott’s vision in relation to the hijacking of a subway train in Post 9-11 New York. Scott’s movies tend to be visually excessive and totally frenetic, and Taking of Pelham exploits Scott’s excessive tendencies to maximum effect. Sure, the movie is no masterpiece. It’s a mega Hollywood production which stars two big Hollywood honchos – Denzel Washington as a New York subway dispatcher and John Travolta as the bad guy hijacker. Interestingly, though it features superstars Washington and Travolta, the individual characters in this film are largely subverted by the visual insanity which dominates the screen. Systems of information, technology, communication, and emergency response splatter the the movie in all their colorful, frenetic, urgent glory while a handful of characters battle out the crisis situation at hand. Because the movie is dominated by visuals and the characters are reduced to minimalist caricatures, I had to work especially hard to excavate meaning from this film. Nothing is on the surface other than the hysterics of the moment of crisis. Indeed, that is what ends up being the point of the film to a large degree. In a Post 9-11 culture of paranoia and Emergency Response, individual humanity is forfeited, and people are reduced to ideologies. The individual has been subverted to the system (e.g. the “war on terror”), and to try to get back to the individual, you have to dig through the layers of ideology that have been dumped on this country. People are “blue” or “red.” They’re “pro-life” or “fetus murderers.” They’re “gay” or they uphold “God’s contract of marriage.” They are patriots or terrorists. They are NRA gun-toting conservatives or tree-hugging liberals. But where are the individual people? I’ll tell you where they are. Hijacked on a subway in New York!
Systems are what dominate Scott’s film because systems are what dominate our culture. Well over half the film is focused on systems in response. One of the major stars of the film is the vast control room of the Municipal Transit Authority with its banks and banks of computerized grids mapping the trains networking their way through New York. The movie screen is filled with computer screens with its digital grids, red and blue and green lines, its arrows and matrixes. Systems of communication are delivered via green and blue buttons and laptop computer screens. Even on the hijacked subway, Ryder, the hijacker, hacks into a wireless network, and images of the Dow and news coverage of the hijacked train dominate the control car of the train. Swat teams and police cars swarm across the screen like a seething singular apparatus divorced from any relation to humanity. Sirens, orange vests, and caution tape weave their way through the screen entangling everything in the frenetic urgency of systems in emergency response. In between, a few characters navigate their way through the crisis.
Because Tony Scott’s vision is so frenetic and so saturated with mind-boggling images that are not human, he forces us to excavate meaning from the few human glimpses we are given. The humans are basically the dispatcher Garber, the hijacker Ryder, the hostage negotiator Camonetti, the mayor (no name), and ultimately the people who ride the subway. Garber is the central focus and ultimately the “hero” of the film, but we are only really able to understand him through Ryder, the bad guy hijacker. Garber is a dispatcher who we learn has been demoted from a more prestigious position within the Transit Authority because he was accused of taking a bribe. In other words, he is accused of being corrupt. Garber does ultimately end up being the hero of the film, but why he is a hero can only be defined in relation to Ryder, the hijacker. Through their negotiations, Ryder actually forces Garber to confess to his crime of accepting the bribe and therefore to become more human and accessible. Through Ryder’s interrogation of Garber, we learn that he accepted the bribe, that he used it to pay his kids’ college tuition, and that his wife reluctantly accepted the crime. As Garber confesses to us the audience and to Ryder, we feel his human spirit freed in almost a religious epiphany (playing on the Catholic trope in the film). But, in the end, it is not God that needs to be embraced in this tale of redemption. Instead, it is the evil of the market that needs to be renounced. Indeed, it is through Ryder that Garber “comes clean,” and the final act of redemption is most meaningful in how it relates to Ryder’s crime, which I will explain shortly.
While Ryder brings out the human side of Garber, Garber fails to bring out the human side of Ryder. Garber and Camonetti try to reach Ryder’s human conscience and negotiate with him to free the hostages, or at least not kill them. As our focus shifts to Ryder, we want to understand him as a human; we want to understand his human motive for the crime. But Ryder confuses us. He’s difficult to place demographically. He is tattooed and Catholic, but we are unable to place him on the continuum of humanity or of class. Something about him rings false. His exterior presence and his interior affect don’t mix. When Garber and Camonetti try to reach Ryder’s human conscience and negotiate with him, it doesn’t work. Ryder cold-bloodedly kills passengers on the train. We eventually learn that Ryder represents the corrupt forces of the market in which individual lives are disposable for the profit of the few in control of the market. We learn that Ryder owned an equity firm in New York that was responsible for robbing the pension fund of city workers (e.g. cannibalizing the working class), and his entire motivation for hijacking the train is to manipulate the market so he can make a mind-boggling profit (turning $2 million into $300 million). In other words, Ryder is a symbol of the market and how it preys upon working class people. Ryder cannot be placed on the human continuum, and his conscience cannot be reached because he is not human. He is the corrupt forces of the market, and the market has no conscience. Camonetti’s character represents the system of communicating through emotional response, but that system fails with Ryder because the market doesn’t have emotion, just greed. Garber’s heroic deed of killing Ryder is also an act of killing the greed and corruption within himself. Ultimately, Garber has to kill the market to redeem himself and reconcile with the part of himself that became economically corrupt. That is his true act of heroism.
In regards to the subway setting, the subway is the system that moves workers; it is the commute system, and it employs people in working class jobs. Also, the subway shows people in motion and existing with lives and destinations below the insane grid of Emergency Response Culture that dominates the surface of Post 9-11 New York (and subsequently America). The fact that the subway is below ground reveals humanity in existence below the surface of all the systems of ideology that dominate our existence in the culture of fear and control. The people on the subway are actual individuals – a young man communicating with his girlfriend, a business man who needs to urinate (a basic bodily function), a mother and her child, a war veteran. Also, the movie was actually filmed on location in the New York City subway system. Even the stage sets were constructed in Queens, so Scott actually kept jobs in New York rather than outsourcing labor to Canada like so many Hollywood movies. In other words, the production of his film honors its political sentiments.
In regards to the glimpses of real human individuals in this film, that is one of the beautifully executed undercurrents. The film shows how individuals have been subverted by the system and have themselves become cogs in the system, but then it also shows how the cogs are still human and how desperately we need to free ourselves from that homogenous system of fear that wants to strip us of our individual identities. As we watch the frenetic insanity of the film unfold, we ache for those little human moments in the vast suffocating network of Emergency Response Culture. There is one particularly moving scene when Garber and his wife talk on the phone, and she tells him to bring home some milk when he’s done with his work (e.g. freeing hostages). The scene is moving because we are able to see that, regardless of all this insane superstructure of emergency response, underneath there are real human beings who still need a gallon of milk brought home.
All these human elements are done very minimally. The large majority of the movie is visually frenetic and absent of individual humans. Whether cop cars rushing through the city, guys in riot gear storming through the subway tunnels, or the vast communication network dominating the control tower of the subway, individual humans are largely subverted by systems. Inside all of this insanity, the American flag is emblazoned everywhere. On vehicles, buildings, suit lapels, shields, and windows, the symbol of the flag is an ever present reminder that this is Post 9-11 Crisis Culture. When individuals do rise out of this fray, we grab onto them like lifeboats keeping us afloat before the system swallows us. In one scene on the train, the mother of the boy asks a young black man if he has a plan to get the hostages out of there. He asks, “Why? Because I’m a black man?” She points to a ring on his finger that says “airborne” and says that it’s because of her ring and that her husband had one of those. In this small exchange, we are reminded of the human loss (the invisible soldiers and men who die) in the culture of the War on Terror. In another small moment that is ultimately huge, one of the S.W.AT. soldiers crouches in the tunnel with his gun trained on one of the hijackers. He is part of the enforcement system and as such is beholden to its laws and orders. He is instructed not to shoot the hijacker; however, when a rat crawls up his pant leg, he startles, accidentally fires, and kills the hijacker. In that one brief moment, his individual identity as a human (a man who is startled by a rat) rises to the surface of the system (the S.W.A.T. unit) and all hell breaks loose. Both these scenes show people who have become systems (military, police) but whose individual identity still exists below the surface of the Ideology of Terror. The individual doesn’t always rise from the system, however. Another example of how the individual becomes the system is in an insanely frenetic scene when cops in cars and on motorcycles speed across the city attempting to deliver the ransom money. Humans and vehicles become one, all part of the same mechanized response system. Cars crash and are left by the wayside. In one scene, a car drives off a bridge, crashes to the ground, rolls and crushes the drivers. Two motorcycle cops force open the door and grab the suitcases of money leaving the bloody injured cops to die. They are no longer humans. They are just cogs in the wheel of the Emergency Response system.
What is Scott telling us with this movie? Perhaps he is showing us how New York, and ultimately America, has been hijacked from the everyday people who ride the trains by a system that breeds paranoia and promotes the corrupt market. Underneath the spectacle of terror and the devastation of market corruption, there are still everyday people who need to get from Point A to Point B and who rely on the subway to reach their destination. Maybe it’s time to put the train back into our own control? Whatever Scott is saying, the film certainly is timely and has enough meat to make it worth thinking about. Also, Tony Scott’s visually frenetic systems sure look gorgeous on the big screen.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.