Review of Unthinkable (2010)

Unthinkable, a psychological thriller, is a disturbing movie about whether there is ever any justification for using torture against our enemies.

How far will we go to prevent another attack on US soil?

Here’s the IMDb story summary:

FBI Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) races to discover the location of three nuclear bombs, each programmed to detonate in a different city. When authorities arrest terrorist suspect Younger (Michael Sheen), who announced the murderous plot in a video, special operative Harold Humphries (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Brody in the interrogation. He takes escalating measures to extract answers from Younger, but Younger clams up. Brody begins to question their brutal methods as time ticks away.

I began watching the movie to review how accurately the FBI and FBI procedures are portrayed. I noted that the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) squad area and the way the FBI agent characters carried themselves and dressed were believable.

As the plot progressed, my evaluation took a deeper, more serious turn. In the movie, the enhanced interrogation tactics used to convince the terrorist to talk are brutal and horrific.

The ideological dilemma faced by the FBI agent observers is soul crushing. I couldn’t avoid considering the similar issues faced by real agents in the past, when they witnessed cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment being used by their military and intelligence counterparts.

It’s my understanding following the terror attacks of September 2001, over 200 FBI agents repeatedly voiced concerns about the harsh and coercive interrogations being conducted by CIA and DOD (Department of Defense) interrogators. Knowing that any evidence gathered under these conditions would be inadmissible in court, they were unwilling to accept torture as a means of obtaining information.

Retired agent Charlie Price was awarded the FBI Director’s Award For Excellence In HUMINT (Human Intelligence) for interviews he conducted with enemy combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I interviewed him for Episode 245: Artful Interviews, Confessions and Signed Statements, I also asked him to share his thoughts about Unthinkable and the real-life issues agents faced when learning enhanced interrogation techniques were being used by our intelligence partners.

After watching Unthinkable, Charlie said, “The film was a terrifying thing to watch. But it was also unrealistic. The agency did do stuff, but not cutting fingers off a person. The good thing about the movie was it raised that moral question. Where is the line, that desperation that draws people to go to the torture thing? Regarding your review, you are right… in real life, agents did bring forward their concerns about the CIA’s use of enhanced investigative techniques.”

“I was there in 2004. We did think that the agency was torturing people, and we didn’t want to be the good cop to their bad cop.”

“We have an affirmative obligation to report a violation of the law. In fact, I served for about five years on Director Mueller’s Special Agent Advisory Committee and I personally briefed Director Mueller on our concerns. It wasn’t just me. There were a bunch of different agents. We met with him every six months. So I have direct, firsthand knowledge that we (FBI case agents) rang the bell when we saw that stuff. As a result, I was interviewed under oath by a congressional committee or a DOJ group. It’s not discretionary, you know, we’re law enforcement officers. We take an oath to the constitution and we just can’t ignore those things.”

Unthinkable is a movie that presents uncomfortable questions and forces us to think about them. Watch the trailer here.

You may also want to listen to Episode 154: Ali Soufan—USS Cole Bombing, The Black Banners. Former agent Soufan talks about how he used traditional investigative techniques to obtain intelligence from known terrorists and how torture can produce false and dangerous information.

Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 300 episodes available on all popular podcast apps and YouTube.


  1. retiredFBIconsultantNovember 29, 2021

    As an FBI tech consultant, the producers asked me for input (back in the day.) I tried to work with the writers and explained the absurdity of their plot; but they wanted to keep the horrific torture in. The only thing I was able to get across to them was the Insurrection Ac. The only change I was able to effect was that they promised at the end it wouldn’t go unpunished- supposedly the last scene has the torture guy taken off site in cuffs to be “charged with violating the Insurrection Act.” Small consolation but it was better than the original ending!

    1. Jerri WilliamsNovember 29, 2021

      The movie is definitely over the top, but it does lead to careful thought about the use of torture. We should connect, if we haven’t already.


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