Clearly, the cellphone videos of police abusing and killing Black people have put that grim and long-lived reality beyond question for many white Americans. Seeing is believing, even for many who’d prefer to fantasize about a happier national reality. The nearly nine-minute clip of George Floyd dying is among the past century’s most powerful and undeniable pieces of footage.
But a provocative six-episode British crime series called “The Capture” takes a troubling look at the other side to the coin that is our profoundly visual culture — where seeing highly doctored visuals is believing.
Initially made for the BBC and now available on Peacock, “The Capture” gives us a suspenseful situation involving murder in which the closed-circuit TV evidence cannot be trusted. Fittingly, the series is set in London, the famously heavily-surveilled city where CCTV cameras are ubiquitous so that the footage can be used to help solve crimes. What happens, though, when that footage is altered? By the time I finished the first season, with its nonstop use of manipulated videos, I found myself more suspicious than ever of every single image queued up in my Facebook, Twitter, and news feeds.
Deep fakery is not a brand-new phenomenon, of course, but as digital technology becomes more precise and more broadly available, the extremely dodgy practice is spreading. Despite nascent government regulations (which have triggered free speech and other concerns), it is being deployed politically, to make Joe Biden look frail or lascivious, for example; it is being employed in moviemaking, notably to make Robert De Niro’s face look younger in “The Irishman”; it is being used in pornography to attach a celebrity’s face onto that of a porn actor engaging in sexual activity. In “The Capture,” one of the key uses of fake video involves framing and convicting dangerous suspects, a “Minority Report”-like twist that raises even more moral questions, specifically about law enforcement.
Certainly politicians have been misrepresented before, thanks to devilishly clever editing and the removal of context. Reality TV has been misrepresenting “reality” for decades now, not just by editing and reordering footage but also by directing and manipulating cast members. But “The Capture” reminds us that now, one of our most historically dependable faculties — sight — has been rendered unreliable. We can no longer trust what we see by default, and not just when we’re reading silly tabloids. We need to verify, to check sources, to foster suspicion in our souls.
By the way, I hope I’m not making “The Capture” sound like a drab lecture in deepfakery or a lesson of any kind. It’s a fast-paced story that reminded me, in its propulsive energy, of the 2018 British thriller “Bodyguard” starring Richard Madden. The plot builds and its story lines intersect nicely, even if it could have been cut back an episode to be a little tighter. For a night or two of bingeing, you could do a lot worse.
Callum Turner — he was Frank Churchill in the recent “Emma” — stars as Afghanistan war veteran Shaun Emery, who at the opening of the series is acquitted of murdering a prisoner of war thanks to a technicality regarding the footage of the shooting. But after a night at a bar celebrating the victory, he is seen on CCTV at a bus stop kissing and then assaulting his lawyer, who is now missing. When Shaun sees the footage of him abusing the victim, he is upset and mystified and claims the scene never happened that way. He was at the bus stop, but he merely kissed her and said goodbye. That sets a much bigger story in motion, involving many levels of secrecy (and a few short appearances by Ron Perlman). Turner is gripping, as is Holliday Grainger as the detective who’s looking into Shaun’s murder case and beginning to detect irregularities.
Other series have dabbled in the deepfake theme, including “Madam Secretary.” But “The Capture” is the best scripted treatment of the topic I’ve seen, not least of all as it refuses to fall into the traditional police procedural dichotomy of right and wrong. Bad cops are using deepfakery in order to help convict bad guys, just as bad guys are using deepfakery to help convict good guys, leaving us to ponder more angles than you might expect going into the show. “The Capture” is frightening, a little brainy, and damning of those who refuse to recognize deepfakery for the crisis it has become.