THE SOURCE CODE is an action thriller in which the action is strictly incidental, there to ratchet up the level of tension that superbly pervades the film. It advances the point of the story, rather than being the point of same. As for the point, its a divinely complex consideration of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the greater good compared to the rights of the individual presented in a framework that pushes the bounds of physics squarely into those of metaphysics while remaining firmly grounded in enough current theoretical quantum mechanics to make the whole thing fly.
The code allows Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) to relive the last eight minutes of a doomed Chicago commuter train. Not as himself, but as a teacher inside whose body his consciousness finds itself. It also finds itself in the middle of a conversation with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the teachers personable co-worker. Disoriented, he, like the audience, in a gradual series of fits and starts, figures out what is going on, both on the train, and in the cramped, dark, and self-contained capsule to which he returns each time the train blows up. The last thing he remembers before the train is being on a mission in Afghanistan, though he is informed by Captain Goodwin, (Vera Farmiga) via a monitor in the capsule, that he has been with then two months. His demands to talk to his father or even for information about how he came to be there are politely, but firmly, rebuffed. Instead, he is ordered to find the bomber on the train and is sent back to relive its last eight minutes over and over again to do so. Completing the mission will spare Chicago a second, more virulent attack with a dirty bomb. Colter is told by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the scientist in charge, that since what he is dealing with is in the past and unchangeable, he is free to do whatever it takes to complete the mission and avert the terrorist attack. Civil rights, due process, presumption of innocence, none of that needs to be taken into consideration, or should be for that matter. What no one considered is that Colter would become attached to Christine, and try to save her, an act that causes unexpected ripple effects.
Writer Ben Ripley takes the bold, dangerous step of presenting a perfect case study for the effects on conscience over the current angst over the war on terror. Real world applications of the finer points of doing the right thing become frustratingly difficult to distill in the heat of a life-and-death situation with time running out to stop it, and no clear enemy on which to focus. When Rutledge invokes words like duty, patriotism, and hero to push Colter to break the law in the unreal eight-minute world, he is not being ironic, nor is he being cynical. He is as much a true believer in those concepts as Colter, though his approach is ruthless in its pursuit. That cautionary element tracks another, parallel one, the wonder of what science can achieve, and how that is applied by the scientists and governments involved. In both cases, he also takes the bolder, far more dangerous step of not succumbing to simple answers. Rather acknowledging that for mere mortals and their works, one answer may not apply in every situation, leaving the audience with the discomfiting reality of an imperfect world. Where philosophers and politicians work in absolutes that eschew emotions, Ripley tenders kindness and gray areas as the best hope for humankind. Director Duncan Jones (MOON) channels the ideas with spare, elegant direction brimming with the very humanity that the people controlling Colter, in their desperation to stop the bombing, forget, exploiting his innate selflessness and decency. An attitude beautifully summed up in Colters comment, when once again facing the bomb on the train, asking in a calm, resigned voice, it to please not blow him up again.
SOURCE CODE is unrelenting in its suspense, keeping the level of surprise and uncertainty at a fever pitch until the credits roll. Every aspect, from fireball explosion, to a longing kiss, is meticulously realized and integrated. There is no glibness in the troubling inner conflicts with which Farmigas nuanced performance, often with only her face on a monitor, bedevils Goodwin, or in the rapturous exhilaration that Gyllenhaal brings to falling in love with a doomed woman. While fodder for endless discussions on what constitutes the right thing to do, it is also bracingly entertaining, and unexpectedly moving.