(No longer in theaters)
First Run Features
Jul 27, 2007
A megalomaniacal drunk who’d killed people behind the wheel could hardly rebuke a judge for dwelling on his past mistakes instead of looking to the future. He could hardly expect to have his keys returned—either to stay the course or wreak havoc on another stretch of road. So why is he still unfettered? Anthony Giacchino’s lively documentary, The Camden 28, sheds indirect light on the matter. An account of the trial of 28 antiwar activists (26 of them Catholic, four of them priests) who, in 1971, tried to steal files from a New Jersey draft board, the film makes you realize that the climate for dissent is not what it used to be. To begin with, there is no draft (only mandatory third tours of duty) to galvanize a culture of couch potatoes. The government is more efficient at snuffing out peaceful protests before they flare into embarrassments. (Witness Mayor Bloomberg’s Minority Report–like preemptive arrest of antiwar demonstrators in 2004.) Finally, it’s doubtful any modern judge would allow Howard Zinn to take the stand to discourse on the injustice of a war. The aborted Camden caper (there was a Judas, albeit one who emerges as a sympathetic figure) was unremarkable. But the 1973 trial—in which the mother of one defendant spoke about the loss of her other son in Vietnam and Zinn discoursed on the justness of the outlaws’ cause—was a holier-than-thou fest in which the other side could hardly have been unholier. Not only did J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI help train and fund the Camden 28 prior to the break-in, but they were also acting at the behest of Nixon and John Mitchell. A confederacy of dickheads.
The Camden 28 is slapdash: more talking heads, reunion footage with the mother reading from her own testimony, newscasts of the day. But the editing supplies some urgency, and the subjects remain radiant yet down-to-earth—too good-humored to be beatific. The film evokes an era when the Church led the fight for social justice instead of against it. A denouement shows several of the Camden 28 marching against the current war. But the other side does a better job these days of making them inconsequential.