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Unrepentant Documentary Review Essays

Here is a documentary about an extraordinary episode of outrageous corruption among New York police in the 1980s; a sort of real life counterpart to A Most Violent Year, but without any of the machinations of drama, and a hundred times more appalling.

The backdrop is the chaos-riven New York of recent myth: the bankrupt city swamped by a tide of crack cocaine and violence, with big-money gangsters ruling the streets and honest folk too terrified to step outside their doors. The central protagonist is Michael Dowd, a patrolman in the NYPD’s 75th precinct in the East New York area of Brooklyn (hence the title); having served over 11 years in jail for his eight-year splurge shaking down drug dealers and and stealing from robbery scenes, Dowd tells the camera in impressive – if self-serving – detail how he ended up as one of New York’s most corrupt cops.

From – as he claims – tearing up a traffic ticket in exchange for “a lobster lunch” in the mid-80s to sending police cars to protect illegal cash runs, to planning a hit on a woman whose husband had allegedly skipped with gang money, Dowd’s trip to the dark side was a long and incrementally shameful one. It’s clear that Dowd took full advantage of the police code of silence on wrongdoing in their own ranks, and has much to say on the subject of “rats” – without a doubt aimed at Ken Eurell, his former beat partner who became a prosecution witness in return for a reduced sentence.

The activities themselves, which primarily involved taking backhanders in exchange for protecting large-scale cocaine dealing, and allowing cops to be seen as hirelings of serious criminals, are jaw-dropping enough; Dowd’s unembarrassability is even more spectacular, offering up one or two strategic hairshirt moments – but he appears essentially unrepentant. And the fact that this type of lawbreaking has fundamentally not gone away is testament to the difficulties facing investigators as well as the basic possibilities on offer to those minded for larceny. A sobering, and indeed worrying, film.

On April 22, 2006 I reviewed a documentary titled “The War Tapes” that was made up of footage filmed by members of a New Hampshire National Guard Unit who had been given videocameras by director Deborah Scranton.

This is from that review:

For students of popular culture, the film will evoke two other works almost immediately. When the GI’s speak about their “job” in Iraq, they will remind you of the principals in “Cops,” Fox TV’s long-running “reality show”. Speaking into the camera, the cops talk about how much their career means to them, even if it involves being immersed in their city’s underbelly and being forced to confront “bad guys” on a daily basis at the risk to life and limb. This basically is the attitude that the New Hampshire National Guardsmen exhibit throughout the film, except that the “bad guys” are insurgents rather than crack dealers.

You will also be reminded of “The Perfect Storm,” another film about working class New Englanders filled with bravado and stoicism on another doomed mission. In close quarters either in a tent or in a HUMV, the New Hampshire National Guardsmen trade jibes with each other in dialogue that is strikingly evocative of the characters in “The Perfect Storm.” Although all of the major characters in “The War Tapes” eventually arrive home safely, there is no question that their lives will never be the same.

As fate would have it, within a year Sebastian Junger, the author of “The Perfect Storm”, would find himself in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley making a movie called “Restrepo” very much in the vein of “The War Tapes”. “Restrepo” was the last name of a Latino member of the unit featured in the film killed in action.  They named their small godforsaken outpost after him, a dubious honor no matter the noble intentions.

The movie was filmed and directed by Junger and Tim Hetherington, both of whom were regular contributors to Vanity Fair magazine, a glitzy publication devoted mostly to gossiping about Eurotrash and hedge fund managers. It is also a place where you can read some first-rate journalism, including a column by James Wolcott who has mentioned the unrepentant Marxist from time to time. In the press notes for “Restrepo”, the directors set down their “non-political” ambitions, by now familiar to anybody who has seen the press releases for “The Hurt Locker”:

The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.

But In January 2008 Vanity Fair you can read an article by Junger titled “Into the Valley of Death” that basically covers the same ground as the movie. Despite the above disclaimer about not making a political statement, he clearly is pessimistic about the goals of the war:

By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart. The Afghan opium crop has flourished in the past two years and now represents 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an estimated street value of $38 billion in 2006. That money helps bankroll an insurgency that is now operating virtually within sight of the capital, Kabul. Suicide bombings have risen eightfold in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in Kabul, and as of October, coalition casualties had surpassed those of any previous year. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that ethnic and political factions in the northern part of the country have started stockpiling arms in preparation for when the international community decides to pull out. Afghans—who have seen two foreign powers on their soil in 20 years—are well aware of the limits of empire. They are well aware that everything has an end point, and that in their country end points are bloodier than most.

The film consists mostly of cinéma vérité footage of the soldiers dodging insurgent bullets, roughhousing with each other, or meeting with village elders to hear their complaints. This alternates with members of the unit back in civilian life reminiscing about Restrepo, which can best be described as a season in hell.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the alienation from their environment that these soldiers experience. Totally isolated from both the Afghans they supposedly are defending and indifferent apparently to the “rooting out the terrorists” ideology that justifies their presence, they seem more like contestants in a mortal version of the television show “Fear Factor”. Instead of eating worms, they eat bullets.

In one of the more powerful scenes in the film, we see the aftermath of a firefight that left one of their comrades dead. One soldier cannot help but sob. Since the dead man was considered a crack soldier, what chance did the others have? They press on, however, mostly out of loyalty to each other than any over-arching imperialist agenda, a growing tendency in American interventions over the past 30 years or so when the clash between naked reality and textbook ideals becomes impossible to bridge.

The characters in the film are largely forgettable with the exception of a handful. A perpetually smiling and baby-faced Miguel Cortez admits in an interview after he has returned to a “normal” life in the U.S.: “I can’t even sleep, honestly. I’ve been on about four or five different types of sleeping pills, and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep and not to dream about it. … To sleep and just see the picture in my head is pretty bad.”

Another character has the unlikely name of Misha Pemble-Belkin, the Jewish son of parents he describes as “hippies” who were so antiwar that they would not permit him to play with toy guns. Now he is a tried and true killer just like the rest. The Vanity Fair article fills in some details:

A 22-year-old private named Misha Pemble-Belkin is sitting on the edge of a cot, cutting the pocket off his uniform. On his left forearm Pemble-Belkin has a tattoo of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship that became entrapped by sea ice in Antarctica in 1915. “It’s the greatest adventure story ever,” Pemble-Belkin says by way of explanation. He takes the pocket he has just liberated and sews it over a rip in the crotch of his pants, which he is still wearing. The men spend their days clambering around shale hillsides dotted with holly trees, and most of their uniforms are in shreds. Pemble-Belkin uses his free time back at the kop painting and playing guitar, and says that his father was a labor organizer who supports the troops absolutely, but has protested every war the United States has ever been in. His mother sends him letters written on paper she makes by hand.

But the most revealing scenes involve their commanding officer, a Captain Dan Kearney who is obviously more into the imperialist mindset than the men beneath him. In one meeting with the village elders, he admits that his men had killed some innocent villagers in the past but now it was time to put all that past them. As Dan DiMaggio put it in a review of the movie that was posted here, this was singularly arrogant:

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Some day an enterprising director will seek out those village elders as well as the insurgents who we know nothing about from “Restrepo” in order to tell their story. Despite their backwardness, they are fighting to expel oppressive foreigners from their native soil—an elementary democratic right that Hollywood is not ready to respect. It will take someone like Gillo Pontecorvo to make that kind of film. God knows we need someone like that right now.

Until that time comes along, “Restrepo” is not a bad introduction to the horrors of imperialism no matter the stated claim of Sebastian Junger to make a movie that was not about politics. It can now be rented from Netflix.

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