Bright Lights Film Journal

David Ayer’s <em>End of Watch</em> (2012) and the Militarization of U.S. Law Enforcement

“End of Watch incorporates the visual and narrative codes of Iraq War films, inviting the viewer to draw a comparison between the battlegrounds of the “war on terror” and the mean streets of Los Angeles.”

In 2012, the Daily Kos reported: “[T]he U.S. military has been conducting joint operations with city police departments.” The article cited a press release from the Los Angeles Police Department, stating that these joint operations were “designed to ensure the military’s ability to operate in urban environments, prepare forces for upcoming overseas deployments, and meet mandatory training certificates” (Lopez 2012). Police department supervision of military combat training implies that the experiences of U.S. law enforcement and U.S. military units have become alarmingly similar; there is an overlap between anti-gang tactics and counterinsurgency tactics, as well as parallel attitudes in both overseas and domestic combat zones. David Ayer’s police procedural End of Watch (2012) is an explicit reflection of this overlap. The film incorporates the visual and narrative codes of Iraq War films, inviting the viewer to draw a comparison between the battlegrounds of the “war on terror” and the mean streets of Los Angeles.

The helmet-cam aesthetic of the Iraq War films (top, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, 2007) found its way into End of Watch (below), inviting a comparison between the battlegrounds of the “war on terror” and the mean streets of Los Angeles.

End of Watch, the story of two LAPD officers, friends and partners, assigned to the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles (Newton Station, division 13), contains what Christina Smith describes as “the helmet cam aesthetic,” a salient feature of Iraq War films, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007) (Smith 2013). Both the police and gang members in End of Watch film themselves in action using digital video cameras and mini-cameras, in ways similar to how both soldiers and insurgents have captured themselves on film. The footage from lawmen and gangsters is presented, alongside the omniscient view of an invisible narrator, as a montage of competing narrators, similar to the approach taken in Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker (2009); the spectator is simultaneously immersed in the policing experience and disoriented by it. Ayer’s film also departs from the neo-noir tendencies of other police procedural dramas, what Nicole Rafter describes as the postmodern cop movie (Rafter, 2006, 118). The film’s central characters, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), reinforce rescue fantasy and a hero mythology commonly featured in American war films. Lastly, End of Watch, through the infusion of contemporary war film codes, critiques the “warrior cop mentality,” the militarization of the attitudes and tactics of law enforcement.

In his seminal book City of Quartz, Mike Davis observes that the history of modern Los Angeles has been shaped by the destruction of the public sphere; contemporary architecture, he points out, was constructed using “neo-military syntax” coupled with a subliminal appropriation of the city’s underclass as “untouchables” and “pariah groups” (Davis, 1992, 226). Gated communities patrolled by rent-a-cops and affluent neighborhoods brandishing signs warning of “armed response” serve as reminders of the power of Los Angeles’s security industry, even two decades after Davis published his findings. In the impoverished neighborhoods, sometimes less than five miles away, the situation is described by politicians, law enforcement officials, and the media in war nomenclature. As quoted in Time magazine during Operation Hammer (1988), the largest series of arrests since the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the Chief of the DA’s Hardcore Drug Unit proclaimed: “This is Vietnam here” (268); the operation, modeled on Vietnam War search-and-destroy missions and supervised by the LAPD brass (many of whom were Vietnam veterans), was described in many circles as the LAPD’s D-Day (274). Foreign war would soon intrude upon this war at home in the form of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), an El Salvadoran criminal outfit tempered in the violence of the U.S.-funded terror wars in Central America (286), now regarded as one of America’s most dangerous gangs and labeled a transnational criminal group by the U.S. Treasury Department.1 In the public imagination, crime in Los Angeles, and indeed elsewhere in the United States, is a foreign conflict manifested on the streets, a product of the militarization of both criminal elements and social space. The fact that recent crime films employ a war film audio/visual language can be read as a product of this history.

Radley Balko has recently cited an “us and them” approach to law enforcement, one that rose out of conservative intellectual movements during the early 1980s, as the locus for the “warrior cop mentality.” Starting with the 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, the boundaries between the military and law enforcement institutions eroded: the FBI, once reluctant to inject itself in the “war on drugs,” found itself heavily involved in this crusade, radar and military surveillance technology became a consistent feature of federal and municipal policing, and high level positions were filled by those who did not deviate from a party line that drug criminals, felons, and repeat offenders were evil and beyond redemption (Balko 2013). The long arm of the law had acquired an iron fist and was reinforced by an aura of militaristic rhetoric, cementing what became known as the “warrior cop mentality”: the lawman as weapon for national defense rather than as merely a keeper of the peace. According to Jull Leovy, the rise of the “warrior cop mentality” over the latter half of the last century has shaped the history of the LAPD and Los Angeles crime throughout the same period and up to the present (Leovy, 2012, 192). The SWAT unit, an invention of LAPD’s former Chief Daryl F. Gates, for example, is tactically modeled on military special operation units, with assault rifles, night vision goggles, and explosive charges amongst their equipage. Warrior cops on the streets would inevitably lead to warrior cops on the big screen, sometimes as brave soldiers in blue (John Badham’s Blue Thunder, 1983), sometimes as farce (Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, 1987), and sometimes as celebrated figures from America’s past (Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, 1987). In End of Watch, the viewer is presented with a different version of the warrior cop, one that is identifiable through a familiarity with soldier characters from contemporary war films and the audio/visual form employed in these films.

The opening chase sequence, filmed from the squad car’s in-car video camera system.

The film begins with Brian Taylor’s voice-over against a black screen: “I am the police, and I am here to arrest you.” The opening sequence that follows is a series of long takes, a car chase through a residential neighborhood and back alleyways, presented as found-footage from the squad car’s in-car video camera system. The voice-over, a monologue about the nature of policing and a warning to criminals, continues over the eight-minute-long chase (as shown on the car’s camera system; condensed to a minute and a half of film time). In a line that recalls the military maxim “leave no man behind,” Taylor proclaims, “although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who are the same as me. They will lay down their lives for me, and I for them.” What is striking about this opening sequence is the similarity to the voice-over narrations of war films; Taylor’s voice-over is a departure from the noir-influenced voice-overs of other police procedurals. Rather than providing a cynical social critique, his voice-over serves to re-enforce a patriotic sense of duty, equating law enforcement with national defense. The warrior cop mentality is made known from the very start, presented as an ambiguous, yet honorable, form of national service.

From top to bottom: Brian Taylor displaying his department-issued side arm in End of Watch, Private Angel Salazar and Sergeant Lawyer McCoy filming one another in Redacted, and Private Mike Deerfield documenting atrocity in In the Valley of Elah.

In the scene that follows, the audience is formally introduced to Brian and Mike, as well as the visual aesthetic that will be used throughout the film. While preparing for roll call, Brian introduces himself, and a camera shy Mike, in front of a digital video camera placed in his locker. After providing his intended audience with a show-and-tell of his tactical equipment (weapon, handcuffs, pepper spray, etc.), Brian attaches a mini-cam to the front pocket of his uniform shirt, and one for Mike as well. The resulting footage is intended for Brian’s thesis film for a part-time elective class on filmmaking. A similar scene opens Brian de Palma’s Redacted. Set in Samara Iraq during 2006, Redacted presents a competing set of perspectives: soldier video diaries, security camera footage, streaming video from jihadi websites, news footage, and excerpts from a French documentary film. The primary soldier diary is that of Private Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who, like Brian Taylor, is also gathering footage for a film school reel. The spectator is introduced to the film’s soldier characters through Salazar’s film; Salazar takes the viewer for a tour around the barracks, introducing himself and his fellow soldiers, one of whom, Sgt. Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), also films Salazar. Redacted, and other contemporary war features, such as In the Valley of Elah, Stop Loss, and Generation Kill, employ a visual approach that Patricia Pisters calls “logistics of perception 2.0” and Garrett Stewart refers to as “digital fatigue,” both of which can be found in End of Watch‘s visual orchestration in various ways.

Patricia Pisters expands upon the work of Paul Virilio, who argued that “the history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception” and that a correlation exists between war technology and war representation, the “logistics of perception” (Virilio, 1989, 7). Pisters applies Virilio’s views to representations of twenty-first century conflicts, focusing on how video diaries, internet videos, and surveillance technology, all of which feature heavily in modern combat zones, are used in contemporary war films, constituting a representational mode she terms “logistics of perception 2.0” (Pisters, 2010, 233). End of Watch draws upon elements of logistics of perception 2.0, recreating what Pisters describes as a “battle of the screens” (237); warfare on the streets of Baghdad, and on the streets of Los Angeles in this case, are captured from the point-of-view of the combatants on both sides of these conflicts, as if they are competing for control of the narration of war. The helmet-cam footage in Iraq War films is replaced by mini-cam footage, shot from a device attached to the front pocket of police blues, and a digital video camera is pointed out of the window of squad car in Los Angeles’s roughest neighborhood rather than out the window of a Humvee traveling down a road littered with IEDs. The film becomes a montage of perspectives, competing for the narrative authority on life in South Los Angeles: footage from Brian’s digital video camera, Mike and Brian’s mini-cams, their squad car’s in-car camera system, digital videos of Latino gang members documenting their crimes, a Blood set casually filming its own BBQ gathering (interrupted by a drive-by shooting), and an omniscient perspective (usually in the form of aerial shots). Through the editing, this battle of screens contributes to a de-familiarization; similar to the near-montage editing approach in The Hurt Locker, the spectator is forced to surrender their sense of control over the spectacle that unfolds.

An MS-13 crew (top images) films themselves as they prepare to gun down a Blood set. Similarly, the Bloods (bottom images) film themselves during a BBQ before the ambush.

Garret Stewart, by contrast, writes that Iraq War narratives have become “too shapeless for plot” and that the role that military and surveillance technology plays reimaging contemporary conflict tends to dwarf heroism and individual sacrifice (Stewart, 2009, 45). This problem with this new visual style is its “consequences for the main armatures of narrative in plot and characters, omniscience and subjectivity,” resulting in an exhaustion at plot level that he refers to as “digital fatigue” (46). While some contemporary war films attempt to address this issue (or at the very least acknowledge this issue as part of a larger commentary on the war), End of Watch attempts to strike a balance between the sense of control that Taylor believes he has over the telling of his story and the reality of American crime as constant interruption. End of Watch avoids digital fatigue through its critique of the warrior cop mentality, employing the logistics of perception 2.0 in a domestic setting, yet keeping notions of heroism and sacrifice at the forefront.

The spectator’s engagement with Brian and Mike is largely based on their at-risk status. In contemporary war films, the expectation of monstrosity provides the narrative with pathos (Pagodda 2012). There is no need to show the audience Hitchcock’s ticking time bomb under the seat. We know from the beginning that it is already there in the form of a roadside ambush or an IED. The car chase that opens the film immediately alerts the viewer to the potential risks that the police characters face. The story that unfolds, one that is both conventionally linear and episodic (recalling the structure of Iraq War films like Redacted and The Hurt Locker), turns on the unseen threat that stalks the police characters. In a scene at the beginning of the film’s second act, Brian and Mike are staking-out the home of a known gang member, Big Evil (Maurice Compte). A grey pick-up truck arrives at the home, and the truck’s driver collects a large stockpot from Big Evil’s mother in the front drive way. Suspicious, Mike and Brian follow the pick-up truck from the house and pull him over a few blocks away. The suspect fires upon the two officers as they approach the vehicle on foot, brandishing a gaudy pistol encrusted with gems. Once the suspect is subdued, Brian and Mike discover a gold-plated AK-47 (referred to by Mike as “Liberace’s AK”) and thousands of dollars in cash, wrapped in plastic, hidden amongst baked beans in the stockpot. This gathered evidence serves as both plot information and as a turn of the screw; as a federal agent later advises them, Brian and Mike have “tugged on the tail of a snake” (later revealed to be the Sinaloa drug cartel), and this unseen threat that hangs over them is reminiscent of omnipresent threat of ambush in Iraq War films.

(Top) A taunt to Brian and Mike from the Sinaloa cartel in End of Watch. (Bottom) William James under surveillance as he disarms an IED in The Hurt Locker.

The threat that clouds over Mike and Brian, coupled with them intentionally placing their lives at risk, recalls some elements of Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker (2009). In a scene during End of Watch‘s second act, Mike and Brian encounter a house fire at a drug den they visited earlier in the film. They radio request fire fighters and paramedics, but once it is made clear that a child is trapped on the house’s second level, the two officer immediately rush in. Not trained as firefighters, this is clearly presented as a selfless act that provides a new cinematic rendering of the warrior cop mentality. Afterwards, Brian and Mike discuss their actions during a break in a convenience store. They know that they are viewed as heroes but neither of them know what “being a hero feels like.” In an effort to obtain the same addictive rush, they decide to go to the safe house of the “cowboy,” the cartel member with the golden AK apprehended earlier, hoping to generate a further lead on a case their department refuses to pursue. The scene that follows begins as a montage of competing perspectives, much in the same way as in earlier patrol scenes: their arrival to “the cowboy’s safe house” is shown through the squad car’s camera, then through Mike’s mini-cam, then Brian’s mini-cam as the two emerge from the squad car, then briefly as the omniscient narrator, then back to the squad car’s camera as the two approach to front door, and down-the-gun-barrel perspectives from both Mike and Brian’s mini-cams. After knocking on the door, the two officers subdue a suspect in possession of flashy weaponry and cash, similar to “the cowboy,” but the biggest revelation comes soon after when, behind a curtain in the house, Mike and Brian discover that the safe house is a prison for trafficked persons from Mexico.

In a similar scene from The Hurt Locker, William James (Jeremy Renner), of an EOD unit during the Iraq War, is called in to investigate a possible IED planted on a quiet street in a run-down neighborhood in Baghdad. At the beginning of the scene, James sets off a smoke grenade to “create a diversion,” when in truth no diversion is actually needed; James intentionally raises the stakes in his own game. Just as in End of Watch, the scene that follows is presented as a montage of perspectives: editors Chris Innis and Bob Murkowski move between static and nonstatic shots, constantly cross the 180 degree line, move between extremely low-angle shots and extremely high angle shots, and, most importantly, shots that suggests eyes watching James (the unseen threat endemic to contemporary urban warfare). The tension is increased when it soon becomes clear that James is being watched, and furthermore when it is revealed that James has not one but several bombs to disarm. Though similar visual aesthetics are used in End of Watch, the renegotiation of the concept of the warrior cop in Ayer’s film provides the difference.

Where End of Watch explicitly reveals its connection to contemporary war films is during Brian’s wedding to Janet (Anna Kendrick) towards the end of the film’s second act. During the reception, a drunk “Sarge” (Frank Grillo) speaks to three young marine corps cadets, in a scene reminiscent of the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter. Sarge stands in for the Green Beret character from Cimino’s film, offering what he believes is sage advice to the young soldiers who could be shipped off to war at any moment. “Cops like [my friend] are like soldiers,” Sarge tells the young men, “He took a bullet for me.” Sarge makes an equivalency between a police officer’s service and military service, echoing Brian’s opening monologue from the film’s opening scene (discussed earlier). Here, the warrior cop mentality is reiterated. It is not merely police tactics and technology that has been militarized but also the mental state of the lawmen, and Ayer’s film drives the point home in this scene.

For Fredric Jameson, war narratives offer few surprises; he locates eight war narratives in film and literature, from which, he argues, there is scarcely a deviation despite differences in situations: “1) the existential experience of war, 2) the collective experience of war, 3) leaders, officers, and the institutions of the army, 4) technology, 5) the enemy landscape, 6) atrocities, 7) attack on the homeland, and 8) foreign occupation” (Jameson, 2009, 1533). End of Watch, one could argue, exhibits several of these narrative types, translated into crime film grammar. Ayer’s film is concerned with both the existential and collective experience of (urban) war, the institutions that are engaged in this war (the LAPD, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and the Sinaloa cartel, for example), the enemy landscape (recast as South Los Angeles), and the role that technology plays in this domestic war. Furthermore, Jameson suggests that both the war film and the police procedural often turn less “on the pursuit of the enemy or the official Other than they do on their own institutional framework”; both war films and crime films are just as concerned with the ignorance or ineffectiveness of the commanders executing the war than they are about justice restored through war (1536). End of Watch, however, stands alongside many contemporary war films in contesting Jameson’s notion that all war films are essentially alike. As Robert Burgoyne’s points out that war films “serve as an index of generational change” (Burgoyne, 2013, 349), crime films, such as End of Watch, are also constructed in dialogue with generational change, providing both genres with a new orientation and new narratives.

Works Cited

Balko, Radley. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Kindle Edition. NY: Perseus Books Group, 2013

Burgoyne, Robert. “Generational Memory and Affect in Letters from Iwo Jima.” A Companion to the Historical Film. Edited by Robert Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulescu. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. NY: Vintage Books, 1992

Jameson, Fredric. “War and Representation,” PMLA , 124 (2009), 1532–1547

Leovy, Jill. “Homecide, the New LAPD, and South Los Angeles.” Post Ghetto: Reimaging South Los Angeles. Edited by Josh Sides. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012

Lopez, Ralph. “Obama Orders Military-Police Department Joint Exercises in Los Angeles, Other Cities.” Daily Kos. January 29, 2012.

Pagodda, Cilli. “Case Studies: Genre Modality in Iraq War Documentaries: The War Tapes (2006).” Presented at the War as a Mediated Experience conference, Free University of Berlin, October 19, 2012

Pisters, Patricia. “Logistics of Perception 2.0: Multiple Screen Aesthetics in Iraq War Films.” Film Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2010): 232–252

Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006

Smith, Christina M. “Representations of Class from a “Grunt’s-Eye View” in Soldier-filmed Iraq War Documentaries.” Presented at American War Cinema Since Vietnam: Politics, Ideology, and Class. Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Chicago, March 6, 2013

Stewart, Garrett. “Digital Fatigue: Imaging War in Recent American Film.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Summer 2009): 45–55

Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema. Trans. Patrick Camiller. London: Verso, 1989


Ayer, David. End of Watch. USA. 2012

Badham, John. Blue Thunder. USA. 1983

Bigelow, Kathryn. The Hurt Locker. USA. 2009

De Palma, Brian. Redacted. USA. 2007

De Palma, Brian. The Untouchables. USA. 1987

Haggis, Paul. In the Valley of Elah. USA. 2007

Verhoeven, Paul. Robocop. USA. 1987

  1. MS-13 gang labeled transnational criminal group, a first for US street gang []