Nightstream 2020 Review: SURVIVAL SKILLS Uses Satire To Lay Bare The Insurmountable Challenges Effective Policing
To say the police are not well liked by the more liberal populations of the world right now would be an understatement, but why? We all want and deserve security. No one wants to feel unsafe in or out of their own home, and yet over the last six months cities around the world have erupted in protest against well documented police brutality and abuses of power. Surely a well trained, level headed police force should be able to maintain order and establish a kind of rapport and reputation among its constituents that would render most complaints moot. But that's just not the reality, and writer/director Quinn Armstrong's Survival Skills is a slick indictment of the chasm between what should be happening and what does happen when a rookie cop tries his best to do what's right.
Couched in the guise of a rediscovered police training video from the '80s, complete with VHS tracking lines and the occasional digital snow, Survival Skills follows Jim (Vayu O'Donnell), an idealistic/idealized first year cop straight out of the academy. Coached through basic on-the-job training by an office-bound talking head in the form of Narrator, Stacy Keach, Jim attempts to put his training to use in his first days on the job, only to find that it's never as cut and dried as he's been taught. As the job gets more and more complicated, Jim's white-hat good guy starts to see the shades of gray but is unable to deal with them, leaving him lost for direction and frequently upsetting those around him.
Survival Skills is a strange and fascinating film, both sympathetic to the challenges law enforcement face on a day to day basis as they are often prevented from making a real difference by procedure, as well as exploring the effect of that constant cognitive dissonance that results from knowing the right thing to do, but being unable to do it. Jim starts out bright-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to make a difference, but as the little defeats begin to pile up, the unfamiliar sting of defeat begins to wear him down.
Reminiscent of any number of workplace safety videos, many of which have found long lives on the internet thanks to YouTube, Survival Skills wears its absurdity on its sleeve, presenting Jim as a blank canvas on which to paint the paradox presented by the idea of effective policing. He genuinely wants to help. In a Stepford Wives kind of way, Jim is the perfect cop, he has no bias, no baggage, he just wants to do the job, but when his procedures fail him - and they do, over and over again - he doesn't know what to do. A man who was once a benevolent robot, eager to do nothing but serve and protect, begins to recognize the futility of his forced inaction, and his perfectly constructed life begins to disintegrate.
It's really hard not to judge Survival Skills based on the current paradigm surrounding the police in America. Though the Black Lives Matter movement has ramped up its protests since the barbaric murder of George Floyd back in May, this is not a new phenomenon, and this film's journey is an odd one in that regard. Jim's adventures in the field include exclusively white victims and aggressors, which definitely fits with the film's '80s aesthetic, however his perfect wife is a black woman, which kind of puzzles me.
Is the idea that even the whitest communities still suffer from domestic violence, random attacks on police, and the inability to provide real support for those who suffer? If so, fine? But that part of the film feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe if Jim's wife hadn't been a woman of color it would've been easier to dismiss the blinding whiteness of the film as a callback to a "simpler" time where everyone in a video like this looked the same, but her inclusion leads me to believe that wasn't the case. I feel like I may be nitpicking here, but it's certainly worth noting that a film that attempts to address the failings in our system of policing avoids including any people of color in the criticism.
But I digress.
Survival Skills is a well told story that utilizes a fascinating cultural relic to illustrate the disintegration of the American cop. Jim and the Narrator find themselves frequently at odds in a way that helps to gradually degrade any sense of authority between them. It takes a while to figure out exactly where the film is going, but once we experience Jim's frustration at being unable to provide any real help to a victim of domestic abuse, everything snaps in to very sharp focus, very quickly.
Even with its faults Survival Skills is an incisive look at an archaic system in desperate need of an overhaul. It may not offer any solutions, but it definitely seems to understand some of the problems, and that's a step in the right direction.
- Quinn Armstrong
- Quinn Armstrong
- Stacy Keach
- Vayu O'Donnell
- Spencer Garrett
- Ericka Kreutz