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Speed and Politics

The other night a friend and I rented the movie Speed. We began to talk about how the movie worked and didn't work for us.
Matt Wray

Issue #20, April 1995

A bomb that doesn't explode is a cheap gold watch.
— Dennis Hopper in Speed
The future belongs to crowds.
— Don DeLillo

The other night a friend and I rented the movie Speed. We began to talk about how the movie worked and didn't work for us. We both like action movies, and, as far as action films go, we thought Speed delivered pretty well. Great stunts, bad acting (with the notable exception of Dennis Hopper as Howard Payne, the mad bomber), good special effects, decent directing (by noted action cinematographer Jan De Bont), a few severed limbs, including a climactic radical decapitation. I don't usually ask for much more than this from an action film. Nor, it seems, do most people. Speed was a huge blockbuster hit last summer, grossing over 100 million at the box office and still raking it in through overseas releases and video sales. In addition to this popular appeal, it recently won a couple of Oscars (for sound and sound editing), outgumping Gump. All this, plus the added bonus that viewing the movie now on video lends to it a weirdly prophetic quality. The long aerial tracking shots of a slow moving vehicle on the freeways of LA, surrounded by police cruisers and swarmed by media helicopters seem incredibly prescient: the movie was released in May 1994, just one month before OJ Simpson's infamous slo-mo freeway end run.

Anyway, like most of my fellow Bad Subjects, I'm one of those people who thinks there's a political dimension to just about everything in life. So, the very popularity and the financial success of this movie, the fact that we don't often look for political meanings in action films, and the fact that I kinda liked it, got me to thinking about the ideological content of the film. What kinds of political messages does the film carry, consciously or unconsciously? What specific kinds of political anxieties might it reveal?

What is perhaps most striking about the film is the way it treats public space. The story relies heavily upon the standard 'supercop in a race against time' plot devices that worked so well in movies like Die Hard. Jack (Keanu Reeves, looking ultra-studly as a highly competent Los Angeles S.W.A.T. Team officer) faces a nefarious mad bomber named Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper, looking maimed and maniacal) intent upon extorting millions of dollars through high-tech terrorism. The movie is essentially three action movies rolled into one. A plummeting elevator, a speeding public transit bus (on the freeway and at the airport), and a runaway subway train; these action shorts provide the opportunity for our heroic crimestoppers to do or die. All three scenarios draw pictures of public space as sites of random terror and destruction. In Speed, public space becomes a zone of conflict and escalating violence, a realm of madness and danger. Now why, we may ask, is that? Other than the obvious fact that this serves as a very effective motor for the plot, whats going on here?

I think this construction of public space as dystopian zone of conflict gives us a way-in to talking about the political messages the film carries. From this perspective, Speed can be understood as a story about the perceived dangers of late 20th century American public space: elevators in office buildings, buses on freeways, trains in subways, these are the vehicles which deliver the message to the audience that random painful death and terror await us in the public realm. On the crudest level, what seems to be at work here is an ideology of "public=bad" and "private=good," but of course the message is a bit more complex than a simple Manichean world view.

Historically speaking, the view of public space as a potential killing fields is at odds with a traditional American myth of shared public space as a place where citizens of all classes and races could gather and recreate peaceably. This view, which cultural critic Mike Davis calls the "Olmsteadian vision of public space" (after the chief designer and planner of New York Citys Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead), celebrated public landscapes and open urban spaces as essential aspects of American democracy. These spaces functioned in large part as social safety valves, "emollient[s] of class struggle," and as such were crucial elements in the liberal paradigm of social control. In his acclaimed book City of Quartz, a social history of Los Angeles, in a chapter entitled "Fortress L.A.," Davis goes on to argue that the old paradigm has been "superseded by a rhetoric of social welfare that calculates the interests of the urban poor and the middle classes as a zero-sum game." This rhetoric points to nothing less than the existence of a new class war, one being conducted primarily at the level of the built environment, the chief strategy being the privatization and virtual elimination of public space. "In cities like Los Angeles," he notes, "one observes an unprecedented tendency to merge urban design, architecture, and the police apparatus into a single, comprehensive security effort."

In some ways, Speed is an extended meditation on this very tendency. As opening credits roll, we begin a long descent, a tracking shot of the steel structures of an elevator shaft, somehow made sinister and menacing by the strains of the Mark Mancina score. The cold, dark, repressive architecture of the shaft might be read as a figure for a rigid and oppressive bureaucratic system, one that moves certain people, middle-class business types, swiftly and safely through the system while leaving others stranded and immobilepeople like Howard Payne (his very name speaks his status as victim), who intends to blow the whole damn elevator and its occupants to bits if he doesn't get some cold, hard cashola. Terroristic extortion is politics by other means. But what exactly has Howard so pissed?

It turns out that what motivates our mad bomber is something akin to class rage. Howard Payne is an angry working-class man, an ex-cop who has literally sacrificed his limbs protecting the establishment from people like himself. Now that same political and legal system for the elites has denied him his pension, his just reward. Howard makes his class rage explicit when he builds a triggering mechanism for one of his deadly bombs out of a cheap gold watch. Jack is thwarted in his efforts to dismantle the bomb underneath the speeding bus because he cant figure out if the watch is a decoy or a trigger. Jack senses that the watch is a symbol, meant as some kind of clue to the bombers identity. Howard, in his remote hideaway, tries to give Jack Traven a clue when he tells him about the watch: "You know what a bomb that doesn't explode is Jack? A bomb that doesn't explode is a cheap gold watch."

Moviegoers know that the gold watch is a potent symbol for postwar American workers. In part, it symbolizes the loyal lifetime service of an employee to the company, but also, by metonym, it references the Fordist bargain struck between labor and management, the working and middle classes, whereby labor gained pay raises and benefits and management gained loyal and (relatively) docile workers. As such, it is a powerful metaphor for the male American dream. At least, it was. Now, it has become something of a joke. A big lie, really, for who, in these days of layoffs, downsizing, and the manifold forms of post-Fordist economic restructuring, really expects to find a job that lasts a lifetime? Howard's comments seem to suggest that those that bought the lie and got shortchanged, people like himself, are pissed and ticking. After all, who in this period of shrinking economies and rising unemployment is going to hire a disabled bomb expert? For Howard, the cheap gold watch is the bomb of class rage, one that has yet to explode, but one which threatens to rip apart the circulatory systems of the social body.

It is significant that the class war that Howard Payne wages against the system is also a race war. The movie makes this clear when he wires an LA transit bus — the driver is African American and the passengers are, almost without exception, people of color. The whites riding the bus are made to seem out of place. One is a frightened tourist from the Midwest and another is Annie (Sandra Bullock), the heroine who happens to be taking the bus only because shes lost her license due, of course, to speeding. The story pits Howard the working-class bomber against a whole busload of Latinos, African-Americans, Mexicans, and Asians. The only other white person on the bus, a poor white woman, dies a gristly freeway death at fifty per.

The ideology of the film shows itself in how it constructs and resolves these conflicts in public space. The narrative works first to create a sort of moral panic and paranoia about the violence that awaits us in the public realm, conjuring up fantastic dangers and frenzies of violence, in large part caused by and visited upon both the underclass and working-class psychopaths. The meaning is clear: no one, including the middle class, is safe here. The solution? S.W.A.T. teams and rugged, individualistic cops like Jack Traven. As Davis points out, this ideology is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

On a political (if unconscious) level, Speed functions in precisely this way, arguing for the increased militarization and surveillance of the public urban spaces of Los Angeles (and of course, by extension, your city too!). But the film also effectively draws our attention to a fact of social relations frequently missed by social theorists: the role of public space in creating and maintaining divisions and hierarchies of social power.

Violence *is* a problem in our society (though not so big a problem as the media would have us believe — violent crime rates have essentially remained flat for the past thirty years), but increasing the number of prisons, arming the police with semi-automatic weapons, barricading the middle classes behind private gated communities, building hi-tech panoptic surveillance systems, turning entire communities of color into penal colonies — in sum, *developing public space as a means of class and racial repression*, can only exacerbate the problem. What's needed is a better understanding of how existing social structures and institutions perpetuate and foster violence. Capitalism is one such social structure that continues everywhere to subject whole classes and social groups to the most debilitating and dehumanizing forms of economic violence. Poverty, class exploitation, ghettoization, homelessness — these are just a few of the rotten fruits of our present socio-economic system. Of course, despite the entertainment appeal of cinematic fantasies like Speed, we know that no amount of action-hero swagger or law enforcement bravado will ever rid us of these ills. What we need to remember is that working collectively to challenge and change the structures of violence just might bring us to a better place, a common space we all can share.

Matt Wray will be joining the Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program at UC-Berkeley this fall, having just earned his M.A. in Social and Cultural Studies. He is currently co-editing an anthology, with Annalee Newitz, called White Trash: Race and Class in America. He can be reached by e-mail at:

Copyright © Matt Wray. All rights reserved.