Thunderheart, Michael Apted’s thinly fictionalized account of the American Indian Movement and the FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, is one of the best films of the 1990s. Unlike Last of the Mohicans or Dead Man, both fine films in their own right, Thunderheart was made with the full approval of and partial cooperation with the Oglala Nation. In addition to starring native American actors like Graham Greene and real life AIM activist John Trudell, it’s not a low budget, independent film. It’s a mainstream film made by professionals. It deserves more attention than it gets.
Thunderheart superficially resembles Mississippi Burning and LA Confidential, but it’s far superior to both. It’s actually much closer to Costa Gavras’s Z or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Yes, it’s that good. Val Kilmer plays Ray Levoi, a one-quarter Sioux FBI agent who’s sent to the Bear Creek Reservation, Pine Ridge, in South Dakota to investigate the murder of Leo Fast Elk, a member of the reservation’s tribal government. Frank Coutelle, Levoi’s superior, a veteran FBI agent played by Sam Shepherd, believes ARM, the American Indian Movement, and the reservation’s “tradtionals” committed the murder. Coutelle, a subtle, intelligent villain worthy of Captain Mathieu from The Battle of Algiers, hates ARM and the traditionals. He’s determined to pin the murder on Jimmy Looks Twice, Trudell, even though the evidence is paper thin. Jimmy, while certainly a determined militant, is quite obviously not a cold blooded killer.
Levoi arrives at Beer Creek in awe of Frank Cuttelle. It’s easy to see why. Sam Shepherd infuses Cuttelle with all of the authority the old West. It’s a quietly mesmerizing performance. Levoi, who’s reluctant to acknowledge his Native American heritage is hypnotized by his cynical, laid back authority. But he begins to have his doubts. The longer he remains at Beer Creek, the more Levoi begins to notice that Cuttelle’s and the FBI’s enforcers, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, the GOONs, commanded by Jack Milton, a very thinly fictionalized version of the real Pine Ridge’s Dick Wilson, are keeping the reservation under a reign of terror. Beer Creek resembles a third world country, El Salvador under the death squads, more than it resembles the United States. Drive by shootings, firebombings, roadblocks manned by pumped up men with automatic weapons, Apted paints a climate of menace and high strung terror that manages to convey something of what it had been like on the real Pine Ridge in the 1970s.
What’s more, Levoi soon falls under the influence of a local tribal policeman named Walter Crow Horse, a Dartmouth graduate and militant named Maggie Eagle Bear, a fictionalized Anna Mae Aquash, and an old medicine man, who unknown to Levoi, has spread the word that the traditionals should see him as a reincarnation of an Oglala hero named Thunderheart, a man who was killed at the Pine Ridge Massacre in 1890. As Levoi unravels the sinister involvement of the FBI with Jack Milton, he also reconnects with his Oglala roots. He begins to respect the culture of the traditionals. We realize that in spite of how Levoi protested at the beginning of the film that he had no connection at all to his half native father, it’s not the case. He’s still haunted by his father’s alcoholism and premature death.
In other words, if the FBI had sent Levoi to Beer Creek as the token Indian, the traditionals have gotten the upper hand. They have done what good radicals do everywhere, turned a ranking officer in the state security services into a double agent. Walter Crow Horse and the old medicine man remind me of some of James LeCarre’s best spies. They’re so laid back and so folksy it’s easy to miss how skilled their recruitment of Levoi really is, how they get into his head, how they unearth the mystery of Leo Fast Elk’s murder even while letting him believe he’s doing all the work himself. Walter, who had his native identity erased in an Indian boarding school decades before and who himself had come under the influence of the old man, had been through the same process of discovery himself. We can feel how badly he wants enlighten Levoi, to help him find himself after years of denial. As Walter and the Old Man win over Ray Levoi, the film wins over the movie goer. Thunderheart is propaganda, but it’s the best kind of propaganda, propaganda for a worthy cause. It actually half-convinces us that there’s something worth exploring about the traditional Oglala religion. Maybe this is the way out of the hell of global warming and environmental devastation. Thunderheart is a genuinely radical film, one that makes us question our own way of life.
What’s more, as long as Leonard Peltier remains in prison, it’s still a film about current events.