BLUE THUNDER: The Airborne Conspiracy

Finding the balance between privacy and security in an uncertain world.

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Disclosure: Tim League owns a portion of NEON and also owns Birth.Movies.Death.

Last week the National Security Agency announced it was discontinuing collection of domestic internet communications which merely mention, rather than being directly with, intelligence targets outside the USA. This bulk inspection of internet traffic violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection of “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches”, but wasn’t known about outside intelligence circles until Edward Snowden, subject of Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary Citizenfour, disclosed the extent of the mass surveillance being conducted by the state on its own citizens in the name of national security.

The protection of the greater good is far from a new argument for the erosion of individual liberties, and the steady advance of technology has only made surveillance easier and more pervasive, from the simple logging of phone records to the proliferation of CCTV cameras in public spaces monitoring our every movement. While technology itself is ethically neutral, how it’s used and by whom are questions which reach deep into our definition of the society in which we wish to live.

These same questions play out in John Badham’s 1983 Blue Thunder, a movie derided on its release for the implausibility of a premise which plays out as all-too-familiar in today’s world of widespread surveillance, continuous connectivity and aggressively militarised police forces with authoritarianism knocking on the door.

Against a backdrop of Los Angeles’ ever-present racial tensions and the possibility of a Munich 1972-style terrorist attack at the forthcoming Olympic Games, the movie’s shadowy Washington types seek to demonstrate the applicability of a heavily armed and armoured prototype helicopter with advanced audiovisual surveillance capabilities, the titular Blue Thunder, in an urban environment.

Frank Murphy, suffering PTSD from his tours of duty in Vietnam, is the police helicopter pilot assigned to these field trials along with his rookie observer Richard Lymangood after the two are suspended from regular duties when a citizen complains about their chopper disturbing his sleep as they peep on a woman practicing yoga in the nude, while, some five miles away in their assigned patrol area, the chair of a mayoral task-force into urban violence is fatally assaulted in what’s investigated as an attempted rape. That Commissioner McNeely is African-American only adds to the racial tensions, as does Murphy and Lymangood’s later crash-landing of a helicopter during a training exercise “somewhere in the Watts area”, this clear reference to the 1965 riots delivered by the saboteur Colonel Cochrane, who has personal beef with Murphy dating from his actions back in Vietnam.

Taking Blue Thunder on patrol, Murphy and Lymangood soon revert to form, getting some close-up footage of a hooker’s cleavage as she engages in coded negotiation with a john, then using the helicopter’s computer links to identify a homeowner in the throes of a sexual liaison with a Highway Patrolman. With one simple clearance Blue Thunder has access to license plates, home security information and police files, recording everything it sees and hears as it whispers across the city’s nighttime skyline without the city’s citizens being any the wiser. The two agree to wipe the tape out of respect for their colleague’s privacy, but the question remains if they would do the same for another individual.

The tables are turned when Lymangood starts nosing around, pulling up his own personnel file but finding Frank’s “under repair” and Cochrane’s full of fabrications, throwing doubt on exactly who has access to this information and how it’s being manipulated. Digging deeper, he discovers that Cochrane is currently assigned to Project THOR, a proposal to use military helicopters to quell civil disorder, the ultimate in police militarisation prior to the formation of a police state. Tracking Cochrane to a late-night meeting with members of the Police, State and Justice Departments in the Federal Building, Murphy and Lymangood uncover a conspiracy to foment unrest which would in turn justify the project’s full deployment.

Peering through the closed curtains with thermal imaging as it silently hovers outside, Blue Thunder captures the conspirators first admitting to killing Commissioner McNeely before she exposed them, then deciding to eliminate Murphy before he can do the same, recording the evidence of their high crimes and misdemeanours to the tape in its belly.

It’s Cochrane who finds Blue Thunder’s capabilities have been turned against its creators, opening the curtain to look across the city and finding the helicopter hanging there, immediately realising the conspiracy has been betrayed by the very technology it sought to use against the populace. An argument often advanced in favour of extensive surveillance is that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, but what if those doing the looking themselves have something to hide?

Their first response is to suppress the evidence, thugs tossing Lymangood’s apartment even as he hides the tape retrieved from Blue Thunder, no longer Just Another Fucking Observer but now an active participant in the flow of information, a step which costs him his life. The conspirators issue an APB implicating Murphy in the murder, so he steals Blue Thunder to protect himself and his girlfriend as she delivers the tape to a local TV station even as it casts him as an armed lunatic loose in the sky, its helicopters capturing the action below in another thematic layer of good versus bad uses of technology.

The efforts to stop Murphy escalate from regular police, to SWAT teams in helicopters chasing between the bridges of the Los Angeles River, to F-16s firing heat-seeking missiles at skyscrapers, the conspiracy’s desperation only checked when the risk to civilian life is deemed too great. Cochrane, however, is having none of this, and sets out in another heavily-armed helicopter to conduct an old-fashioned shootout above the streets of downtown Los Angeles, ultimately falling prey to arrogance as his military might is defeated by Murphy’s sense of what is right and good.

The pattern of whistleblowing and condemnation is reflected in the real world: Chelsea Manning is due to be released from prison this month after seven years of detainment following her leaking of classified documents relating to US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including gunsight recordings from an Apache helicopter attack on a van in Baghdad remarkably reminiscent of Blue Thunder’s demonstration of an aerial assault on terrorist targets, complete with collateral damage in the form of innocent civilians, some of them children.

Manning’s intention was to show the true cost of modern asymmetric warfare, and to do so she turned to the Wikileaks organisation created by Julian Assange, the subject of Laura Poitras’ new film Risk, making both his and its reputation as a force for government accountability. Regardless of the legalities of her actions or the vilification she received as a mentally unstable traitor, the operations undertaken by governments in our name described in Manning’s leaks raise the same questions as Snowden’s, of the kind of society, the kind of world, we want to live in.

Frank Murphy ultimately destroys Blue Thunder, not wanting to live in a world where such firepower and surveillance capabilities are available to the police. This may seem like a victory, but the genie doesn’t go back into the bottle: there will be other helicopters, other wars, other agendas which challenge both the social contract and the balance between security and privacy, things we can only assess when we know what they are.

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