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Sundance Film Review: "Secrecy"
As the Sundance Film Festival draws to a close, a film review seems in order. The film is “Secrecy,” a documentary about U.S. government secrecy – specifically, the use of classification to hide mistakes and embarrassing truths from the citizenry. Although the film is important, it suffers from [two sentences deleted].
As a key example of abusive government secrecy, the film focuses on an incident that occurred in [date deleted], just after World War II. In that incident, nine men died in the crash of an [aircraft model deleted], on which several of them were conducting a classified experiment.
The government refused to release the accident report to the widows, citing national security. The case went to the Supreme Court, which supported the government, establishing the “state secrets” privilege against disclosure of national security information in litigation. Under this doctrine, courts generally accept the government’s assertion that information is sensitive; the judge rarely conducts even a confidential review to determine the accuracy or truthfulness of the government’s claim.
So, the case was a major victory for government secrecy, and a blow to openness and democracy. But, as the film demonstrates, it was all based on a fraud. Fifty years after the aircraft crash, the accident report and other documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act, and they disclosed a shocking – yet unsurprising – truth: the crash had nothing to do with the classified experiment.
Indeed, the experiment was mentioned only once, in passing, with no discussion of its nature. Rather, the report cited a litany of component and maintenance failures as the cause of the crash. The film includes interviews of survivors of the men who perished, and their pain and sense of betrayal are moving.
It’s a strong, and disturbing, example of government misconduct. The film also includes examples of more recent secrecy abuses, relating to Guantanamo and to torture generally. Yet, those examples seem less compelling than the fifty year old aircraft crash example. The human dimension of the more recent cases is unexplored, and the examples cited seem less egregious.
Similarly, the film alludes only briefly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and doesn’t explore the way in which government secrecy nearly suppressed the entire sorry culture of that prison. Nor does the film mention an incident – perhaps too recent for inclusion – in which a defense lawyer filing a brief in the [court name deleted] was forced to write his brief in an empty office provided by the prosecutor, without access to law books or his own notes, or even to the government’s brief to which he was nominally responding. Astonishingly, the defense lawyer was then denied a copy of his own brief. This egregious set of conditions imposed by the U.S. Attorney is apparently without precedent in the U.S. At least, one hopes so.
Visually, “Secrecy” is mostly composed of talking heads – including two government agents who are quite creepy – with the interesting twist that the interviewees’ names are often not displayed for quite some time into the interview. Presumably, the intent of the filmmakers – two Harvard professors – is to disorient the audience, and they are successful.
More cinematic are a series of woodcut-like animations that appear from time to time while interviewees are speaking. These morph in surreal ways that reminded me of “Destino,” a short animated film created by Dali and Walt Disney. That film, nominated for an Academy Award, was first storyboarded in 1945, but not completed until 2003, [number deleted] years later. It was on display at an exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art that closed earlier this month, but will reportedly be released on DVD later this year.
All in all, “Secrecy” is not a bad film, but it does fall short. It deserves a release, on television at least; a lack of distribution would be the ultimate irony. I wish I could tell you now about the other films I saw at Sundance … but those reviews may have to wait another fifty years.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post on January 27, 2008.