BROOKE GLADSTONE: For moviegoers weary of Jedi's and Spiders, the most popular film last week was Insomnia in which Al Pacino plays a cop who wrestles with his own demons and plants evidence. It's reminiscent not only of Denzel Washington's Academy Award-winning portrayal of a dirty cop in Training Day, but of countless other corrupt cops portrayed in films going all the way back to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and before. [CLIP FROM TOUCH OF EVIL]
CHARLTON HESTON AS "MIKE" VARGAS: I saw that shoe box 10 minutes ago, captain.
ORSON WELLES AS CAPTAIN QUINLAN: Yeah, well maybe you didn't notice.
CHARLTON HESTON AS "MIKE" VARGAS: I knocked it over on the bathroom floor. I couldn't very well have failed to notice two sticks of dynamite.
ORSON WELLES AS CAPTAIN QUINLAN: [SHOUTING] Tell any story you want to, Marcus! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CHARLTON HESTON AS "MIKE" VARGAS: [SHOUTING] The shoe box was empty!
ORSON WELLES AS CAPTAIN QUINLAN: Go on saying it's empty. Folks'll understand.
CHARLTON HESTON AS "MIKE" VARGAS: I'm saying more than that, captain. You framed that boy. [SHOUTING] Framed him!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: More recent depictions of the dirty cop can be found in L.A. Confidential; Gang Related; Copland; Exit Wounds; Internal Affairs. David Milch is one of the creators of ABC's long-running NYPD Blue and a writer on such police dramas as Brooklyn South and Murder One. He says society likes to see cops in black and white -- bad and good. But the reality, the one he tries to portray, is that the good cop is the one who breaks the rules because he has to. David Milch, the cops you write break the rules all the time.
DAVID MILCH: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
DAVID MILCH: Because that's the nature of their job. Any time you see a, a police show and the first thing a cop says when he put-- brings someone into custody is you have a right to remain silent -- turn off the show. It's, it's a joke. [LAUGHTER] At that moment, you have to come to a fork in the road, the Miranda Law says you, you have to tell a guy the-- you have the right to remain silent. No cop says that. Because his job is to keep a suspect separate from his lawyer. What society wants him to do is get the confession and then lie or indulge society's need to maintain the illusion that the constitutional niceties were observed. And you see now, in the aftermath of 9/11, the surfacing of what has been latent in the social contract with cops right along, which is take 'em all in, round 'em all up, keep 'em in preventive detention. Yes, we want the Constitution observed, but if it's a question of pr-- of our safety or the observation of the Constitution, say goodbye to the Constitution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you think that your personal attitude toward bending the rules filters through your writing and, and if so do you feel responsible for how the public perceives the cops because of the characters you write?
DAVID MILCH: I don't think I've written too many cops who have not enhanced the public's understanding of what it means to be a cop; the personal price that a cop pays. You know, because when you live outside the law -- which we force cops to do [RUBBING HANDS TOGETHER] -- you pay an enormous emotional price. The violence that we identify in them is a violence of spirit. It's a willingness to--go outside the law. You know that's where criminals live. And so that's where-- that's where cops go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But isn't it a very short distance from living where criminals live and becoming a criminal yourself? You know that's what happens in Denzel Washington's character in Training Day.
DAVID MILCH: That is not a two dollar cab ride -- that little trip you just took. What happens to Denzel Washington's character in Training Day is-- an extravagance. Very, very few cops wind up that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the prevalence of bad cop depictions in the movies? Where do you think that comes from? You know-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID MILCH: Defects of imagination. That's where all bad writing comes from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Defects--? I'm not talking about bad writing. I'm talking about very good writing about bad cops in such films as, say, L.A. Confidential and more recently, Training Day-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID MILCH: Yeah, well you and I have a disagreement about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Well are you saying then that any depiction of a bad cop is, is-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID MILCH: Those, those cops were clowns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- is solely bad writing?
DAVID MILCH: [LAUGHS] No. There are purely bad cops. You know I can write those characters, but they don't interest me particularly, because they're purely bad people and to focus on the fact that they're cops is to distort their essence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What media depictions of cops most affected you when were growing up? It wasn't Joe Friday.
DAVID MILCH: No. I, I kind of liked Naked City.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about movie depictions? What did you think of Serpico?
DAVID MILCH: I enjoyed watching it. I didn't think it had much to do with-- cops, but--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was based on reality!
DAVID MILCH: No. [LAUGHTER] No, it wasn't. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You beg to differ.
DAVID MILCH: I beg to differ. [LAUGHS] I mean the-- the r-- I know something about the real Serpico, and-- that was not Al Pacino.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All the films that we've discussed were before 9/11. What do you see happening after?
DAVID MILCH:You know I think there'll be creative jingoism; I think that now you'll see an idealization of law enforcement and of the military which is just as hypocritical, just as distorting, and ultimately just as destructive to the public's understanding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know we often hear about cops complaining about the media -- especially the news media. Do cops complain about the way they're depicted in entertainment media?
DAVID MILCH: Yeah. They do. But the complaint does not have to do with the fact that bad cops are shown. Every cop knows that there are bad cops. But so much of entertainment that has to do with cops grows out of the signing on by the writer to a social hypocrisy about what it is that cops really are and the job that we want them to do. And an awful lot of entertainment comes from that superficial reaction to having to see violence. People don't want to be forced to address the consequences of the things that cops have to do to keep them safe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a pleasure talking to you.
DAVID MILCH: Thanks so much. [CLIP FROM NYPD BLUE PLAYS] [FAINT SIREN BACKGROUND]
GORDON CLAPP AS DET. GREG MEDAVOY: God forbid you ask yourself did, did he only go cause he, cause he was getting hit?
DENNIS FRANZ AS DET. ANDY SIPOWICZ: That's an absolute accurate concern. [SNIFFS] [OTM THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
GORDON CLAPP AS DET. GREG MEDAVOY: So how do you deal with that?
DENNIS FRANZ AS DET. ANDY SIPOWICZ: If I feel I gotta do it -- I hit him.
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis and Michael Kavanagh; engineered by Scott Strickland, Dylan Keefe and George Edwards, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Andy Lanset and Eric Wellman. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. You want my shield? Here -- take it! Take it!