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.