Strip Search


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Strip Search portrays two precisely parallel situations: an female American in China being questioned by the state police, and an male Arab in the States being questioned by the FBI. The "hook" of the film is that the dialogue is almost exactly the same in both situations, with both interrogators using an arrogant attitude and cruel tactics to humiliate the prisoner.

Most of the people who saw the film misunderstood the point. The author of the film is not presenting a case that the FBI agent in the film is following actual FBI procedures, nor even that a rogue FBI agent could do so. Nor is he making a case that China treats American prisoners or any other prisoners in this manner. It's not a documentary. The point is that it is possible for a viewer to see the exact same fictional scene, one time feeling sympathy for the prisoner, the other time not. In other words, the film isn't about the characters at all. It's about your reaction to them. It is intended to provoke your thinking about this matter. If you watched the FBI agent interrogate the Arab without having seen the parallel story, would you have felt any sympathy for the Arab? Perhaps not. That is probably because you feel that the embarrassment of a few individuals is a small price to pay to defeat terrorism. Then why do you feel sympathy for the American woman in the exact same situation? After all, what's wrong is wrong, isn't it?

To make the point even more dramatic, the two interrogations produce different results. The Arab man is innocent. The American woman is really guilty of the action she has been accused of. This offers us one more dose of shame if we sympathized with the woman. Once more, the film is about us, and our reactions.

There is another point as well. Showing the American in China drives home the point that when we take away the rights of the Arab man, we take away our own rights as well. In two ways. (1) We cede additional powers to our own government when we allow them to abuse prisoners. The unjustly accused prisoner may someday be one of us. (2)  We assure that American prisoners will be treated with equal disrespect by their governments. If our government uses torture, it tells the world that the United States does not consider itself subject to the international agreements on this matter. That means Americans will be tortured when the shoe is on the other foot. When we take away rights, we give up those rights in parallel. This point is emphasized by the film's prologue, in which an American teacher asks his students whether they would be willing to give up their rights for a day in order to assure that terrorism would be defeated. After they agree,  he asks whether they would do it for ten years. The real questions are, of course, how many rights can be ceded, which ones, and for how long? The film doesn't really offer any answers; it merely poses the questions. You have to admit they are good questions.

The film is very short - only 55 minutes long with some framing devices at the outer edges, so the interrogation section is only about 50 minutes long, meaning that it's a 25 minute movie shown twice. In other words, Strip Search is really more of a single provocative idea than a fully-realized script. Even at its existing length, I felt it was a bit too long. After all, the point is made instantly, and then the script has nowhere else to go, since the characters are basically undeveloped archetypes and not real people with whom we have established any connection. It doesn't help that the dialogue is just basic hack work and that there are heavy-handed intercuts of American Presidents making idealistic speeches about freedom.

Oh, well, if you get bored with the manipulative gimmick after fifteen minutes, you can always enjoy the full frontal and rear nudity.

The Strip Search project underwent many changes, and I don't know all the details. It was originally intended to be a full-length Sydney Lumet film. The HBO site originally listed it at 120 minutes, and published a cast list which featured Ellen Barkin, Rashida Jones, Oliver Platt, and others who didn't make the cut. I suppose those actors did perform in some scenes, because IMDb lists them as having been in "deleted scenes," but I don't know why the network decided to pare the show down to just the 55 minute version.

Strip Search was the subject of considerable controversy in 2004 since it aired in the May of a Presidential election year. There was a substantial brouhaha after its first airing, and the second airing was cancelled. The film is rarely shown, and it has yet to come to DVD. I just don't know the full story behind it. I can guess, but it would be all speculation. There had to have been substantial pressure exerted on HBO to persuade them to pull the film from their schedule, because they are independent and tough-minded. In turn, there must have been a substantial viewer outcry when they made the decision. I suppose we will have to wait for the disc to hear the details and see the deleted footage. I for one will get the disk if it includes all a commentary, deleted footage and the complete history of the project, because all of that is far more interesting than the good but underdeveloped idea which finally ended up on screen.

DVD Info

This film has never been made available on DVD.


There are no major reviews online.


6.3 IMDB summary (of 10)


It was made for a cable TV network.


  • Maggie Gyllenhaal: extended full frontal and rear nudity. This was chosen by our readers as one of the Top Ten Nude Scenes of 2004
  • Bruno Lastra also did full frontal and rear nudity.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


The project has weaknesses, but it has a good basic idea, is directed by Sydney Lumet, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, and features Maggie  stark naked for an extended period. Those factors alone make it worth a look.