Docurama // 2008 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // October 1st, 2009
"Secrecy is something like forbidden fruit. You can't have it -- it's classified. That makes you want it more."
An overly serious and melodramatic documentary, Secrecy ponderously pokes and probes the state of national security in America, lambasting the government emphasis on nondisclosure to its citizens in the interest of security. The tone is emphatically serious and grim, but all told, a balanced (if scattered) commentary on the issue.
Secrecy shines a penetrating light into the dark and unseen world of government secrecy -- or it would, had all the pages it requested not been blacked out and redacted. Taking measure of the tension between security and freedom, the documentary seeks to understand what degree of openness and transparent a democracy requires and demands.
Full of sinister mood music, innuendo, and accusation, Secrecy is a no-holds-barred documentary: from the opening title, it goes right to the throat of the issue, accusing the American government in withholding secrets -- national security, domestic policy, foreign relations. You name it, we're keeping it secret. Our government's tendency to redact and protect at the highest levels, the documentary argues, is one that causes great damage in public perception and human rights; indeed, that the very notion of secrecy hinders true democracy at its most base levels. After all, how can the people govern and control our government if we are not made privy to the truth?
Consider the last decade in America, with the Patriot Act and the attacks of September 11th. Never has information been less available for American access in regards to our own government's actions: what we are doing, who we are talking to, what country we are shipping prisoners to, what interrogation techniques we are using on them. What does the public need to know in order to function effectively? Does the American government have a right to keep secrets from its own people -- who, in the strictest sense of the democratic word, elect said government to rule on its behalf -- in order to protect the whole? Protect it from who, or what? Secrecy needs to know these things, very desperately.
The root of the argument that Secrecy puts forth is that in the battle between freedom versus security, freedom must always win -- or else the secrecy only serves to protect a nation that has lost sight of its own goals. It is a sensible argument, but a tough sell in an America still staggering from eight years under the Bush administration and an endless war on terror. Most happily give up our right and access to information in order to sleep soundly at night, believing that the government is looking out for us. A clear picture is less important than the illusion of security, be it real or imagined.
Secrecy moves rather disjointedly between topic and topic, covering terrorist bombings in Beirut, investigative journalism in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, habeas corpus, exploding B-29s in Georgia in the 1940s, the Manhattan project, and on and on. The film interviews former CIA agents, military attorneys defending accused terrorists, everyday citizens affected negatively by secrecy, and even reporters in its examination of the issue. A lot of ground is covered, but there is nothing in the way of narrative structure or order to the flow. We just get 80 minutes of stock footage, interviews, and weird animation art set to moody music, with long pauses randomly interspersed throughout.
To its credit, Secrecy genuinely takes an effort to showcase both sides of the issue. We see as many people deriding the government for its policy as we do defending its actions as just and necessary. One particularly nasty moment in the film comes from exploring how press reports lead to the direct death of American soldiers during a terrorist attack, and had this information been kept secret (as the government wanted it to be) events might have played out quite differently. This dual perspective examination makes Secrecy a surprisingly mature take on the subject (even as it opens the debate up to logical fallacy and contradictions -- more on this in the Rebuttal Witness section).
The quality of the DVD presentation varies on the footage, as with many documentaries, but the interview footage compiled is impressively sharp, with nice black levels, good color contrast, and no defects or compression artifacts noticeable. For a moderately low-budget documentary, this is a very pleasing technical presentation. Audio is a simple stereo transfer (no subtitles, which is unfortunate) that has weak bass response, but clear dialogue and an ethereal, dramatic score that plays hauntingly throughout the picture.
Extras are nice and sizable. We get a commentary track with filmmakers Peter Galison and Robb Moss, interview outtakes (33 minutes), some extended sequences (6 minutes), extracted stories (21 minutes), and a filmmaker biography.
Secrecy does argue both sides of the issue, more than most documentaries do, but the overall tone towards the American government and the culture of secrecy is overwhelmingly negative. The film makes some valuable arguments and genuine criticism against the practice, but this argument really leads to no valuable conclusion for the viewer.
The film is angry at the government for keeping secrets on what it arbitrarily considers to be "national security issues," but also argues that the government does have a legitimate need to protect its citizens and that keeping secrets in the interest of national security is part of that. So where does one draw the line? Yes, we get it -- who watches the watchmen -- very clever, but documentaries should not be structured around rhetorical questions.
An overly serious and melodramatic documentary, Secrecy ponderously pokes and probes the state of national security in America, lambasting the government emphasis on nondisclosure to its citizens in the interest of security. The tone is emphatically serious and grim, but, all told, this is a balanced (if scattered) commentary on the issue. It is most admirable to see a film brave enough to tackle an issue from both sides, even if the conclusion is murky and unclear.
I do love a good secret.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extracted Stories
* Extended Scenes
* Filmmaker Bios
* Official Site