The Sentinel (2006)

The Sentinel thus sets up a conflict between two exceptionally earnest masculine icons -- Kiefer Sutherland and Michael DOuglas -- all furrowed brows and low-talking intensity.

The Sentinel

Director: Clark Johnson
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Douglas, Eva Longoria, Kim Basinger, Martin Donovan, Blair Brown, David Rasche
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-08-29
George Nolfi: If the Secret Service wants to find you because they believe you are a threat against the president, it is going to be almost impossible for you to move in this country.

Clark Johnson: In other words, don't fuck with the Secret service.

--The Sentinel, commentary

But what you've done here

Is put yourself between a bullet and a target.

And it won't be long before

You're pulling yourself away.

--Citizen Cope, "Bullet and a Target"

You wanna shoot me!? Forget about the Kevlar. Shoot me in my face!

--Pete (Michael Douglas), The Sentinel

"You can see what they do," says Clark Johnson while watching the footage of the Reagan assassination attempt that begins his film, The Sentinel. Noting Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service Agent who stands up straight and takes a bullet while everyone else ducks at the sound of the shots, Johnson continues, he "actively put himself in the lie of fire... to make himself bigger in order to do his job." Johnson and screenwriter George Nolfi are impressed. "People's politics are polarized in the country right now," says Johnson, "But I can't imagine being asked to do that for somebody I didn't like." For instance, Johnson says, David Duke: "Imagine having to die for a guy like that... or George W., God forbid."

In fact, Johnson plays just such an agent in the movie -- for about a minute. His Charlie Merriweather is dead before he's asked to take a bullet for any president he doesn't like, though his murder does occur by shooting and appears to be a function of his "knowing too much." Charlie appears long enough to tell fellow agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), "I need to talk to you about something," at which moment, Charlie glances up at the surveillance camera, through which you're now looking down on him, you know, because he's doomed (Johnson makes the apt remark on the murder scene, "Poor Meldrick, or whatever my name was in this movie").

So the point is made: surveillance technology is ominous in the Secret Service business. Or maybe in DC more generally. As Johnson and Nolfi go on to note in their commentary (which is equal parts observational, political, and technical) that filming in the city is notoriously difficult. They ran into all kinds of permit troubles and even a shut-down toward the end of their day near the White House ("I thought we were being punked by Ashton Kutcher," laughs Johnson). As Johnson points out more than one, "We're all being watched, no matter what you're side you're on. This is what this world is like..." since the Bush Administration's

The most conventional thriller angle on their movie -- it involves a presidential assassination plot, various murders, and Pete's framing by the super-organized bad guys -- detracts at times from job and character details that are more interesting. As Johnson notes, the Secret Service essentially polices itself through an internal investigation unit, here the Protective Intelligence Division, directed by the tightly wound Dave Breckinridge (2006 Emmy winner Kiefer Sutherland, whom Johnson describes as "coming from really interesting stock," meaning a family full of distinguished Canadian actors). It also "handles" immigration issues and counterfeiting, which aligns it (or makes it competitive with) Homeland Security.

Pete's story is both intensely personal and exceedingly public -- he was on the job during the Hinckley shooting, took a bullet, and has suffered traumatic flashbacks ever since. He and Dave both conclude that Charlie's murder is part of a bigger plot, and they share a certain tension, as Dave thinks Pete -- renowned womanizer -- broke up Dave's marriage by bedding his wife. He also mentored Dave's newbie agent Jill (Eva Longoria), who ends up caught between the boys, who spend the movie snarling and shooting at each other, all in the name of bonding, of course.

All this to suggest that Pete's particular trauma manifests in assorted bad attitudes, cynicism and what seems a complete lack of humor. Even aside from their personal history, Dave comes upon evidence (phone records and such) that points to Pete, whose behavior is only worse now that he's actually bedding the person he's assigned to protect, the First Lady, also known as Sarah (Kim Basinger, who, Nolfi observes, "really does inhabit that role, a Jackie O-type First Lady).

When one of their trysts -- lots of breathing and earnest passion -- is inevitably photographed (through inexplicably part-opened curtains, quite untidy on Pete's part), the lovers have to figure out how to handle what appears to be blackmail. This threat also appears to be linked to Meldrick's murder, a thickening of plot that makes Pete's previous abuses of trust look trivial. Now he's got to protect the woman he loves (because he really does love her) and ward off an assassination plot against President Ballentine (David Rasche), while also saving his own neck. That is, he's about to be redeemed after all those sweaty nights dreaming about Reagan.

To the end of this redemption, Pete gets to make a great show of articulating the ethos of the Secret Service, which, for 141 years, has never had a member be disloyal to the president (this would be the lore, anyway). The agency is heavily invested in honor, dedication to duty, and adherence to long-established codes of conduct (not to mention the suits, the earwigs, the sunglasses). When the agents catch wind of the possibility of an assassin inside the Service, the response is aptly hectic.

Dave's intelligence division is especially dependent on personal integrity, investigative brilliance, and admirably abrasive personality. As much as Dave is, according to his ex, "the most pig-headed man I've ever met," he's also bursting to the seams with integrity and efficiency. His colleagues agree he's a by-the-book hard case who will follow the evidence wherever it leads. His pursuit of Pete is dogged but also edgy, in part because Sutherland is The Man (Johnson and Nolfi joke that they believe he might star in something called "'22' or something"), but in part because Dave is pretty much obsessed with doing he absolutely right thing, which means he assumes he knows what that is.

The Sentinel thus sets up a conflict between two exceptionally earnest masculine icons, all furrowed brows and low-talking intensity. This is where Johnson and Nolfi's commentary eases and expands the film's focus (the mini-documentaries, "The Secret Service: Building on a Tradition of Excellence" and "In the President’s Shadow: Protecting the President," are less unusual). As they're watching the big climax -- which involves the G8 in Canada, post-Soviet KGB assassins, competing protection details, agents with guns and passwords a-flying, and underground parking facilities suddenly full of menace and rushing bodies -- they're talking about meanings of "security," the tension between state safety and oppressive surveillance, and how secrets can damage trust.

In other words, The Sentinel is a so-so thriller-romance-action flick, but as an indication of how the notions of "secret" and "service" become untenable in their conjoining, it is strangely compelling, even, on occasion, revelatory. The agents protecting POTUS are always potentially "between a bullet and a target," as the Citizen Cope lyrics have it. Changing technologies only make the space between smaller.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.