4th October 2010: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)

Low-key. Understated. Television series episode.

The critics’ consensus: Daniel Alfredson’s second film of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy lacks the visceral dynamism of Niels Arden Oplev’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Oplev’s film introduced non-readers to Larsson’s alter egos –  bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Millennium investigative journalist Mikael Blomvist (Michael Nyqvist). Their collaboration evoked off-the-shelf parallels with past heroes and franchises; and their fusion of cryptography, digital image processing and archival research neatly fits the ‘self-image’ of techno-savvy ‘convergent’ journalism now taught in many university media programs. Fire doesn’t have the revelatory three act structure, and by filling in Salander’s backstory Alfredson destroys some of Larsson’s mystery.

There’s a good reason for this and why ‘convergent’ journalism students should watch Fire. Preferably twice.

Fire has two dominant themes: (1) facing a dark personal past; and (2) the ethical consequences of journalist and editor decisions on freelancers, researchers and story sources. The first narrative arc spans Salander’s renewed friendship with Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), her encounters with lawyer-guardian-rapist Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) and enforcer/hitman Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), and her decision to confront the shadowy entrepreneur Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov). The second narrative arc unfolds when Blomvist, editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and Millennium‘s editorial team decide to publish a sex trafficking article by freelancer Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) that may implicate Swedish politicians and social elites including Bjurman. Svensson’s background sources include his girlfriend (Mia Johansson) who has just completed a PhD in gender and women’s studies. The two narrative arcs begin to intertwine when Svensson, his girlfriend and Bjurman are murdered and Stockholm police chief Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylen) investigates Salander as the ‘lead’ suspect.

Alfredson and scriptwriter Jonas Frykberg fill this police procedural with small, telling details about the joys and perils of investigative research. Svensson’s girlfriend celebrates the completion and publication of her PhD in tones that All But Dissertation candidates and ‘PhD widows’ will appreciate. Her discussion with Svensson about her research design, questionnaires and source protection strategies are the kinds of conversations that occur in university committees on human research ethics. Notre Dame’s Carolyn Nordstrom, Columbia’s Ray Fisman, and Berkeley’s Edward Miguel illustrate how such research is undertaken using inference and mosaic theory, such as Fisman and Miguel’s use of diplomats’ parking tickets to analyse patterns of political corruption (PDF). Sometimes those moments of H.P. Lovecraft-like revelation come in quiet, mundane settings such as during data collection or in a university library.

Fire moves slowly because even if the network’s outlines are known it’s the causal links, rigour of investigative methods, and the quality of evidence that is crucial to a successful prosecution and shutdown. The dilemmas that Millennium‘s editorial team face after their deaths — the ‘decision to publish’ and how to do so — are very real, as is their step-by-step process of using social network analysis to map a covert trafficking network. Blomvist’s ‘deep background’ interview with Gunnar Bjork (Ralph Carlsson) about Salander’s childhood abuse and the machinations of the Russian GRU intelligence agency — all strictly ‘off the record’ — reflects the investigative techniques of journalists such as Seymour Hersh, Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll. As Blomvist understands, ‘classified’ information can remain secret because its disclosure would reveal governance failures in the intelligence agencies and security police, and would upset the bureaucratic power dynamics. (Or reveal plot points cribbed from antipsychiatrist Thomas Szasz.) Lisbeth’s journey to confront Zalachenko likewise involves Cold War spying tactics: dead drops, disguise, evasion, surveillance, investment funds, and front companies. This tradecraft isn’t usually taught in ‘convergent’ journalism courses and yet it’s what is needed to uncover what Peter Dale Scott calls the ‘deep politics’ of systemic corruption. It’s found in documentary films rather than blogs: Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s Bus 174 (2002) in which the backstory to a Brazilian bus shooting reveals poverty, prison violence, and death squads; or the closing minutes of an interview with a Russian pilot about the cargo’s identity and purpose in Hubert Sauper‘s devastating Darwin’s Nightmare (2004).

“I should have done this a long time ago,” Salander demurs, as she leaves Wu’s hospital bed to find Zalachenko. “They’re chasing the wrong lead,” Blomvist exclaims frustratedly, to Berger and Bublanski. With these reflections, Blomvist and Salander struggle to find a way out of their personal labyrinths. If Blomvist had cooperated with Bublanksi and Stockholm’s police, would Salander’s fate have differed? For those who know real-life cases the solace may lie in a haunting, single line email that Salander sends to Blomvist: “Thankyou for being a friend.”