A part-Sioux FBI agent turns against his superiors when he discovers a deadly operation by his agency to squelch Native American resistance to government control. [ Thunderheart credits: Dir: Michael Apted/ Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene/ 118 min/ Thriller/ Government as Bigot, Second Amendment]
It has been said before that the political and economic system imposed on Native Americans embodies all the worst characteristics of socialism. Property is often held in common, most jobs are in the pay of the U.S. government and are dispensed at the will of a presiding local official, and even the tribal residents who are not so “employed” are on some kind of government aid or other. The effect of all this is to create an atmosphere of dependence and despair and to give a chosen few power over the many.
During the 1970s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was organized to reform and resist this situation. The result was a sporadic civil war between AIM members on the one hand and reservation powers-that-be (backed by the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs) on the other. AIM was systematically subdued, but this fictional take on these events gives it a happier ending.
In this story, the FBI sends a part-Sioux agent to a Sioux reservation to help investigate a murder. Initially, he sides with the FBI in suspecting that the murder was committed by members of AIM (called ARM in the film). However, he begins to question that presumption when, in the course of his investigation, he observes firsthand the corruption and violent tactics of the government’s reservation operatives. At the same time he gains sympathy for the Sioux themselves and gradually awakens to his own Native American roots, which he has heretofore denied. Events come to a head when he finds out who really committed the murder and ends up on the run from his fellow FBI agents. Ultimately, it’s the Second Amendment, what it was really meant for, that saves the day.
Thunderheart succeeds as both semi-factual exposé and fictional whodunit. The dialogue is witty at times, and Val Kilmer gives an outstanding performance in the leading role. The mystical effects that put him in touch with his Native American heritage require some suspended judgment, but then again maybe that’s all just supposed to be symbolic of his self-enlightenment. Those particularly interested in this subject may also like Incident at Oglala, a documentary on the same subject by the same director.
“Stylishly balancing thrills, mysticism and political outrage, Director Michael Apted has produced his most absorbing movie since Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
“Thunderheart adds up to an absorbing and provocative thriller.”