The story of David McKay and Bradley Crowder—two young, naïve activists who plotted to throw Molotov cocktails during the 2008 Republican National Convention, only to be informed on by an older mentor and then imprisoned—got the documentary treatment two years ago, in Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway’s engrossing Better This World. Now, upstart director Jamie Meltzer tells the same story again, this time from the perspective of the informant, Brandon Darby. It’s not unwarranted: The charismatic, treacherous Darby is a much more compelling figure than the two young men, both of whom were largely just dupes. But Meltzer hasn’t unearthed enough fresh material, and he hasn’t dug deeply enough into Darby’s near-sociopathic opportunism.
Listening to Darby recount his story, it doesn’t take too long to figure out he’s always been more narcissist than activist. He’s the scary type who loves fighting for a cause, yet seems to have no convictions. All that matters is the fighting: the opportunity to show what he’s made of, to have people look up to him and urge him on. When the movie begins, Meltzer shows Darby in his early activist days, striding headlong into the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina: rescuing trapped people, coordinating relief efforts. In these moments, Darby seems like a genuinely admirable guy. But once the work gets more mundane and complex—when it stops playing into his savior complex—he tires of the cause and moves on. Meltzer isn’t clear on precisely when Darby switched from anarchist-activist to full-time FBI informant—a trip to Venezuela led to some sort of epiphany, apparently—but it’s plenty clear that Darby wasn’t much troubled by his own flip-flop. If his former activist buddies wouldn’t feed his ego anymore, the FBI would.
Instead of focusing on Darby’s relationship with McKay and Crowder—and exploring, as Better This World did, the thorny legalities of entrapment—Informant spends most of its time listening to Darby rationalize and dissemble. Meltzer even gets Darby to act out parts of the story with the help of professional performers. The idea, probably, is to let him hang himself with his own rope, but too often it feels as if he’s being indulged. As with the recent The Act Of Killing and Errol Morris’s upcoming Donald Rumsfeld doc, it’s hard to know where the line sits between interrogating a subject and encouraging them. In this case, it’s probably fair to say there isn’t enough insight gained to excuse the avalanche of bullshit.
Meanwhile, there’s a potentially fascinating theme imbedded in Darby’s story that goes largely unexplored: the idea that modern protest is little more than theater, and that the participants on both sides are just actors playing roles. During his time in New Orleans, Darby was a hugely admired figure in the activist community. The fact that he could turn on a dime to become bosom buddies with the FBI—and, later, a star of the Tea Party movement—shows how mutable the roles of anarchist and authority figure are. And though honest idealism surely motivates many a professional activist-anarchist, they need “the man” just as much as “the man” needs them. How would they define themselves otherwise? The two sides are locked in a lovers’ embrace.