If the government holds another draft, Judge Brendan Babish thinks the protesters won't be nearly as restrained as the Camden 28.
How far would you go to stop a war?
"What do you do when a child's on fire, in a war that was a mistake? Write a letter?"
Those are the opening lines in The Camden 28, a harrowing documentary on a group of anti-war protesters who did everything they could—including extralegal means—to bring America's war in Vietnam to an end.
Of course, the priest who offered that opening comment was speaking of the Vietnam War, but sadly those lines words seem applicable to our current situation as well. However, there are problems with that analogy, especially with some of the specific facets of the Vietnam War explored in the film. In 1971, 28 individuals in Camden, New Jersey practiced civil disobedience by destroying draft records, an act that would inhibit the government's ability to send young men from the Camden area off to war. Of course, if replicated, these acts could have seriously compromised Richard Nixon's ability to continue the war altogether. Because the Iraq War is being fought with an all-volunteer army, and the reinstatement of a draft is pretty much off the table, there is an element of social injustice that was relevant then, and not so much now.
Still, both wars are deeply unpopular, and seemed to have accomplished little to show for the staggering loss of life, money, and reputation. And because of this, though the Iraq War is never mentioned in The Camden 28 until the coda (this restraint is very much to the film's credit), the specter of our current situation hangs over the entire movie. The Camden 28 proves to be an eloquent and powerful meditation not only Vietnam, but on the general principle of civil disobedience.
The Camden 28 weren't the first group who attempted to destroy draft records, but there are many aspects that make their case unique and especially interesting. For one thing, they weren't composed of stereotypical hippies. Many members were blue collar workers, and three of the 28 were church leaders who could no longer abide what they considered senseless loss of life, especially when the resources used to continue the war could have been used to improve the squalid living conditions of Camden residents. Additionally, the Camden 28 received national attention, and their case was widely seen as a referendum on the war as a whole. But perhaps most importantly, the Camden 28 won.
Director Anthony Giacchino tells their story through a mixture of contemporary interviews, footage of a recent Camden 28 reunion, and loads of archival pictures and news excerpts. While Giacchino does a good job recreating the context surrounding the Camden 28's actions in 1971, the film's strongest attribute is its contemporary interviews with members of the group. It proves to be incredibly moving to hear these men and women describe the helplessness they felt regarding the war, and the obligation of doing whatever they could to stop it.
However, one very minor fault is the extent to which the documentary glorifies the actions of these individuals who used extralegal means to attempt to bring about the end of the war. While I personally applaud these individuals, and am certainly pleased they avoided lengthy jail sentences, there is a tension that exists in the unqualified approval of a very small group of people to compromise a large-scale government effort. To the credit of Giacchino, The Camden 28 includes interviews with both Bob Hardy, a government informant with the group who was sympathetic to their cause but disapproving of their means, and one of the arresting F.B.I. agents. The F.B.I. agent is especially interesting because he seems genial, if a little rigid, but still admits that he would have preferred it if the members of the Camden 28 had been found guilty and sent to prison. I would have been interested in pursuing his reasoning for this, especially since there were probably many individuals at the time who agreed with him.
That said, at a brisk 83 minutes, The Camden 28 is concise and never loses focus. It is rare to find a documentary that is as moving, profound, and informative as this one. I would recommend it to everyone, but especially to those people (like myself) who are disheartened by the indefinite continuation of our current war and weren't alive to experience the protests of the Vietnam War.
First Run Features is distributing The Camden 28 on DVD with some nice, palate cleansing bonus features. There is additional interview footage, an essay by historian Howard Zinn (who testified at the Camden 28's trial), and expanded coverage of the Camden 28's reunion, which is one of the most moving special features I have seen in some time.
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