Even the hardiest political-documentary buff is susceptible to war-doc fatigue these days, as an endless onslaught of Iraq War documentaries is joined by a resurgence of Vietnam documentaries implicitly and explicitly linking a failed American war in Southeast Asia with a faltering, interminable one in the Middle East. Anthony Giacchino's Vietnam documentary The Camden 28 initially gives little indication that it'll stand out from the flood of non-fiction films attacking long-discredited wars and current unpopular ones. Stylistically, this is pure, grey Documentary 101: stock footage providing fuzzy, generic period detail; talking heads; plaintive music cues; and new footage of old anti-war protestors revisiting important locations from their pasts, camera crew in tow.
After an inauspicious beginning, however, the film delivers one riveting, poignant twist after another. Giacchino's film centers on the eponymous group of anti-war protestors, which attempted to break into a draft-board office and sabotage its role in the war machine. Alas, the group's efforts were doomed from day one, as the helpful handyman teaching them the ins and outs of breaking and entering was actually an FBI informant. At the ensuing trial, it's abundantly clear that the anti-war protestors did exactly what they're accused of—they willingly concede as much—but it's equally clear that the FBI went out of its way to facilitate and aid the crime. The guilt-stricken informant turns against the FBI for lying to him, and the activists succeed in essentially putting the morality of the Vietnam War on trial, with the help of superstar witness Howard Zinn.
As it slowly, steadily develops a devastating emotional power, The Camden 28 unfolds haunting, strikingly vivid images: A mother comes to the heartbreaking realization that her son died in an unjust war. A good but deeply conflicted man attempts the tricky, if not impossible, business of betraying his friends with honor, only to be betrayed himself. That same man receives 50 hundred-dollar bills enclosed with a letter of praise from J. Edgar Hoover as his 30 pieces of silver for setting up his chums. A priest presides over the mass for the dead child of the man who betrayed him. Though the filmmaking is pedestrian, The Camden 28's timeless truths come through with resounding power.