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THE CALL: 9-1-1 Goes Hollywood - The Dispatcher as Action Hero
Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
I just got back from seeing THE CALL, the first movie thriller to feature a 9-1-1 dispatcher as its central protagonist. While not without criticisms, I enjoyed the movie and felt gratified to be able to cheer the film for its positive image of the public safety telecommunicator in a heroic role of action. Xena, step aside!
In a time where field responders seem to get all the glory in Hollywood moviedom, THE CALL, which opened Friday, stars Oscar-winner Halle Berry as a veteran Los Angeles Police dispatcher named Jordan. She is haunted with guilt over a call she took from a teenage girl reporting a break-in – a call that went horribly awry, resulting in the child’s abduction and murder. Overcome by stress, Jordan transfers to the training unit, sharing her expertise with the agency’s new recruit dispatchers. Fast forward six months later: when a probie dispatcher proves unprepared to handle a call about a similar abduction, Jordan is asked to step in and take the call over. Overcoming her panic to control the caller’s hysterics and ascertain a location (the kid – very well played by nearly-grown-up Oscar-nominated child star Abigail Breslin – is calling from the trunk of the kidnapper’s car on a pay-per-call cellphone with no GPS), Jordan uses her wits to keep the caller calm and help her out as much as she can while other dispatchers and her supervisor coordinate with responding units, allied agencies, and keep up with cell-tower pings from the girl’s cell phone in urgent attempts to locate her. In the process Jordan realizes the perp (a very good psychological portrayal by Michael Eklund) is the same killer from her previous call, stimulating her to take action into her own hands. In true Hollywood fashion, the storyline culminates in a face-to-face confrontation between Jordan and the bad guy. (All of this is shown in the film’s trailer, so these aren’t really spoilers that you haven’t already been teased by in the movie’s advertising.)
The film is a taut thriller, thoroughly engrossing in its suspense and excitement from beginning to end. It’s supported by expert direction by Brad Anderson (best known for having directed 2004’s THE MACHINIST as well as producing and directing several installments of the science-fiction TV series FRINGE), a credible set design of a large-municipal 9-1-1 Center (although liberties are taken by the magical capabilities of some of its technology), and a creepy, tension-building electronica music score by veteran film composer John Debney in a welcome return from scoring romantic comedies to generate a searing undercurrent of apprehension throughout THE CALL. The film is very much a suspense thriller, although some scenes near its climax wander very near outright horror without completely crossing over that grizzled line, but you will be gripping the theater arm-rests (or your moviegoing partner) fairly tightly. Those who enjoy the exciting ride of a good suspense story well told should enjoy this movie.
Much is to be commended about Halle Berry’s performance as Jordan in the film. She is natural and believable in the role, and since she’s the focus of almost every scene, it’s a performance that really makes the film. In preparation for her role, Berry went into the field to research our frequently unheralded profession and sat along in a Dispatch Center to see and hear how calls were handled and how the dispatchers acted. In an interview with writer Chris Eggertsen of hitflix.com during the film’s press junket, she mentioned how she had been shaken after listening to one particularly horrifying real-life call. “I heard one call that I will never forget,” Berry said. “I heard a woman being raped. And the perpetrator didn't know that she had called 9-1-1 and that the line was open, and she went through a rape, and the 9-1-1 operator was listening for most of it until it got disconnected.” That incident also gave Berry insight into one factor of the dispatch profession mentioned in the field: the communicators rarely get closure on their calls.
The journey taken by Berry’s character in the film – from the tragic trauma she experiences in the first call to being able to actively participate the perp’s disposition at the end of the film – is a traditional one by Hollywood standards, but it’s just as effective and satisfying now as it was nearly a century ago. “It does start off where she's a bit broken in a way and somewhat defeated,” Berry told Eggertsen. “And throughout the movie, she finds a way to get her power back and at the end of the day redeem herself while trying to save a little girl [a kidnap victim played by Abigail Breslin]. She was just as much saving herself as she was saving the little girl, which is what allowed her to do what 9-1-1 operators just never do” [take matters into their own hands].
(Read more of Eggersten’s excellent interview with Halle Berry about preparing for her role, and the film’s depiction of 9-1-1 telecommunications, at hitflix.com)
The film’s storyline is fairly simple, but satisfying enough for this type of film – it’s the typical Hollywood saga of a person who makes a horrible mistake and has the chance to redeem herself by confronting and overcoming the situation anew. Professional dispatchers in the audience (and I suspect there will be quite a few, since we’ve never been the hero of a feature film before) may accurately criticize some of the film’s minutiae, but I found it a fairly honest portrayal of the profession, showing the dedication and camaraderie of the dispatchers and revealing a few insights into what makes the job special. Its depiction of the interworking of the LAPD Communications Center is credible and effective, particularly in its portrayal of essential role played by the dispatcher in the public safety system (in on scene, Jordan takes a group of new-hires on an orientation, accurately telling them how the dispatcher is the vital link between the public and the emergency responder). Director Anderson’s camera circulates over and through the maze of consoles in the film’s version of the LAPD dispatch center, complete with mock Vesta screens, with numerous close-ups of Halle Berry’s fingers deftly operating the equipment. The interaction between dispatch and the field units, while greatly abbreviated for the film’s pace and focus, is very good, and snippets of other calls taken by Berry and her colleagues like Flora (Denise Dowse) and Marco (José Zúñiga) are true to form.
As Manohla Dargis put it in his review of the movie for the New York Times, the LAPD dispatch center, here called “the hive,” is “buzzing with the trills of incoming calls and the hum of reassuring voices … where every rote greeting — '9-1-1, what is your emergency?' — becomes the opening line in a never-ending procession of melodramas, comedies, dramas, tragedies and horror stories like the one that puts the chill in this no-frills diversion.” The film indeed gets this right.
The small role of Jordan’s supervisor in the 9-1-1 Center (stiffly but plausibly played by Roma Maffia) provides both support and direction to Jordan, although Jordon’s role as a calltaker in a large Communications Center like LAPD would probably not see her also dispatching or updating field units directly.
The movie loses a lot of its credibility – but gains most of its coolest moments of suspense – when Jordan decides to go far beyond her job description and duties and take herself out into the field (by herself) to locate the kidnapped girl. Rather than calling her officer boyfriend this time, she drives out to a potential suspect address which of course is right where the perp is conducting sick business with kidnapped Casey, and suddenly we’re in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS territory. This becomes cause for innumerable “don’t go in there!” moments when unarmed Jordon foolishly enters the environment of a predatorial killer known for his painstaking planning and expertise. The film’s ending has already been criticized as implausible; its concluding twist seems out of character for both Jordan and Casey as they have been initially developed in the story, but it does work within the context of the movie-as-suspense-thriller, and the film’s (arguably) morally gratifying resolution ends the film on a note of wicked justice. But, in view of the verisimilitude the film has maintained up to that point, ending the movie on such a dark punch line is kind of a let-down.
Overall, however, I felt THE CALL was a solid suspense thriller that displayed our profession well. It had its Hollywood moments, of course – it is fiction, after all, not a documentary, and so of course it’s going to take liberties and choose artistic license in order to tell the best story it can with as many thrills and chills it can get away with – but it’s a well-made and believably engaging thriller that manages to make the role of the 9-1-1 dispatcher as laudable and heroic as that of the cops and firefighters who are usually the focus of these kinds of movies.
What, then, does THE CALL teach us about the dispatch profession?
That not every call will have a happy ending. Despite our best efforts, some calls will go sour. Most modern dispatch centers have support programs and critical incident stress management services – or access to them – to help with the kind of stress demonstrated by Jordan at the beginning of the film.
That dispatchers should always give themselves the freedom to leave the calls at work and not bring the stress home with them. But that doing so it easier said than done.
That despite the dispatcher’s mantra that “may all my mistakes be small ones” (followed by the corollary, “and out of site of the media”), mistakes will happen because we are human. Sometimes a well-intended mistake, such as Jordan’s at the film’s start, will lead to an unhappy situation. It’s important to learn from our mistakes, even from discipline when it is applied constructively, and actively endeavor self-improvement in a profession when mistakes can’t be tolerated. Get some moral support, get more training, get focused, and get back in the saddle.
That dispatchers (especially call-takers) will rarely get closure on the calls they take, and if they do it’s usually through the news media or by calling an associate in field operations. Our role isn’t to invest ourselves in what happens, anyway, as much as our curiosity craves knowing what happened. Our role is to serve as that conduit of information from caller to responder. We don’t often get to know what happens. What we do get is: the next call.
That dispatchers will never, ever make typos, especially when stressed out while taking an emotionally fragile and extremely urgent call. I don’t know about this one, either.
That dispatch supervisors are there to support their subordinates, but not hold their hands or micromanage what they do. They should step in and direct staff members when necessary, especially if one of them is having an emotional issue about the call, as Jordon does, but perform their supervisory role with respect and empathy.
That the hot dispatchers always date the hot officers. Lonely dispatcher dude Marco: get over it. That is just the way of the world.
That the dispatcher’s role is to be heard but not seen in the world of public safety, unless they’re on a ride-along or assigned to a function in the incident command post. Understand your role and stay within its responsibilities. I’ve known one or two dispatchers who took it upon themselves to go out into the field and play investigator off duty, and none of them are dispatchers any longer (and not by their choice).
That dispatchers do play a vital and often unrecognized role in the public safety process, beyond that basic role as a conduit of information. They serve as counselors, calming the hysterical, transforming the panic-stricken into productive agents in their own rescue, anticipating the needs of field responders, networking a myriad of resources, and more, and rarely get credit for their supportive role in solving crimes. Our rewards are almost always rewards of self-reassurance and peer recognition.
That sometimes dispatchers should be allowed to think out of the box when questioning callers in particularly unique cases, or when necessary information isn’t forthcoming.
That Jordon, at the end of the film when the perp says, “you’re just the operator,” should have corrected him. “No I'm not,” she should have told him. “I‘m the dispatcher.”
Fade to black.