"This movie is going to raise holy hell, and I may never work again," says director Sidney Lumet of HBO's Strip Search, a provocative drama about civil liberties in the post-9/11 era that airs April 27. The story cross-cuts between two degrading interrogations: In China, an American student (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets grilled about her political activities, while in the U.S., an FBI agent (Glenn Close) gives a Saudi scholar (Bruno Lastra) the third degree. Now here's the kicker: Both sequences use the exact same script, implicitly equating the countries' treatment of suspects.
The filmmakers maintain they're simply taking dramatic license to tell a cautionary tale. "Am I saying we're a totalitarian country? No," says writer Tom Fontana. "Am I saying we could become one? Absolutely."
Such contentions have already stirred controversy among conservative watchdogs. "The premise is preposterous and insulting," says Media Research Center VP Brent Baker (who hasn't seen the film). "To put a moral equivalent between the United States and a Communist regime that has oppressed and murdered its citizens for 60 years is outrageous."
Whatever your opinion of Strip Search's politics, there's no arguing with its dramatic potency. Homicide vet Fontana knows his way around an interrogation room, and four-time Oscar nominee Lumet (Network) elicits astonishing work from his cast. The seemingly fearless Gyllenhaal delivers on the promise of her breakthrough role in Secretary with another emotionally (and physically) naked performance, and as her captor, Ken Leung proves electrifying. "He's one of the most original actors I've ever seen," raves Lumet.
The film's quality probably won't sway its ideological critics, but producers are prepared for the firestorm. "If I have to take the heat, I will — as long as people discuss it," says Fontana. "When you go this far out on a limb, you're not looking to be loved."