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My favorite movie: L.A. Confidential

Every once in a while I get asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” My answer has changed over the years. In high school my default answer was always The Road Warrior and then in college Aliens. And while I still love those two films whenever anyone’s asked me about my favorite movie in the last few decades my answer’s always been L.A. Confidential which was released 20 years ago this fall.

The detectives of L.A. Confidential

The ironic thing was the first time I saw L.A. Confidential I didn’t get it. The story of the movie is so complex and layered that after that first viewing I went away scratching my head not quite sure what had happened. L.A. Confidential takes place in early 1950s Los Angeles where a group of detectives lead by Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) are investigating “The Night Owl Murders” where a group of people, including an ex-detective, were killed in an all-night diner robbery gone wrong. But the story isn’t nearly that simple as the plot of L.A. Confidential twists and turns back in on itself that begins to reveal corruption upon corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department.

It was only after I watched the movie a second time that I finally began to get it that over the years L.A. Confidential became my favorite and I’ve watched it once a year since. I think just the fact that I watched the movie the first time and didn’t get it, but was intrigued enough to come back to it a second time to figure out what I’d missed shows just what power L.A. Confidential had over me.

Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Bud White (Russell Crowe)

What’s kept me coming back to L.A. Confidential over the years again and again is the central theme that there are these dark, moldy shadows luring just behind the bright and shiny glitz and glam of Hollywood. If all we know of that city is what we see in movies, which are by definition not reality, then we really have no idea what’s really going there. And what’s really going on there, in the movie L.A. Confidential at least, are all sorts of bad things from murder, to prostitution, drugs and much worse. But because it’s in the city’s best interest to keep these things from the public, what’s described in a voiceover in the movie as, “Life is good in Los Angeles… it’s paradise on Earth… That’s what they tell you, anyway.” Which means that a certain element of the police department is allowed to break the law themselves to keep L.A. looking gold. Which means over time they become the defacto organized criminal element in the city hiding behind their badges.

The core of L.A. Confidential is the idea that what we believe to be true and what is really true might be two different things is, and if that’s not a perfect summation for life I don’t know what is.

Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken

Enter Ed, Bud and Jack, three of the most unlikely of corruption busting cops ever. Ed’s got his sights set on political power and is willing to step on anyone and ruin anyone’s lives if it means getting him a rung higher on his career ladder. Bud’s more of a bruiser than a detective and is actually used by the bad cops to beat people into submission. And Jack’s on the take, accepting money from journalists to be given the big scoops whenever a celebrity is arrested.

But for various reasons, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out why, the three of them come together to bust up this corruption ring that everyone else in power’s too afraid to go after.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kim Basinger who played prostitute Lynn Bracken’s who’s character’s one claim to fame is that she looks like actress Veronica Lake. Basinger plays an important role in the movie, one that has a bent moral compass herself but somehow serves as the moral compass for more than a few characters in the film. In addition to the film winning for best adapted screenplay, Basinger would win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Bracken.

L.A. Confidential is so good you can practically feel the southern California heat coming off the screen, smell the cigarette smoke and squint because the dust from the street’s getting into your eyes.