Judge Clark Douglas used to think that a "sleeper cell" was where prison inmates took naps.
Infiltrate. Assimilate. Annihilate.
"If you're watching this, I guess I'm dead. If you're watching this and I'm not, then everything's f—-- -, and I might as well be."—A young terrorist, speaking into a video camera.
Facts of the Case
When you hear Robert (John Shea, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) speak, you listen. He is a smart, charismatic man with a lot of persuasive arguments. A lot of what he has to say makes logical sense, and you find yourself agreeing with much of it. Then, before you know it, the words "let's make a bomb" are coming out of his mouth, and your smiles and nods are turning to appalled horror. Or, in the cases of a select few, perhaps you just keep smiling and nodding. The Insurgents chooses these people as the center of attention in a study on domestic terrorism.
The individuals in questions are Marcus (Henry Simmons, Shark), a former GI who has a great deal of bitterness toward his country; Hana (Juliette Marquis, This Girl's Life), an ex-prostitute who now believes that she has found something meaningful in life; and James (Michael Mosley, Bella), an ex-con who thinks that he is finally going to be committing crimes he can be proud of. As these terrorists-in-training are pulled ever closer to participating in the death of thousands of people, are any of them going to be able to pull out of the spiral of lies and deception and see the reality of what they are doing?
The world is in a crisis at the moment. Between the war in Iraq, the ever-present threats of terrorism, the questions about whether or not it is appropriate to torture, and the endless other problems at home and abroad, it's not hard to understand why there is so much confusion and chaos in America right now. The Insurgents is a thoughtful and somewhat paranoid film about what people with good intentions could be led to do. Essentially, it is a tale of noble liberalism gone sour. One moment of rationalization leads to another, and another, and another, until someone honestly believes that the only way to truly achieve peace in this world is to bring about a great deal of suffering and destruction.
When we think of "terrorists," we frequently think of radical individuals led by blind devotion to fundamentalist leaders. We think of people on some sort of horribly misguided spiritual mission, determined to bring about the apocalypse and punish society for all of its sins. The Insurgents suggests that there is even greater danger within our own society…that the real danger is as much from those who allow their thoughts to run unchecked as from those who do not permit themselves to think. It's a frightening concept, and certainly a very relevant one.
I imagine that it's quite difficult to successfully pull off the emotional journey one has to take when going from average citizen to radical terrorist. Fortunately, the actors here all fare very well, creating believable and complex characters. The finest performance comes from John Shea as the charismatic academic who leads his small group into the realm of terrorism. He is not a man who tells lies, but rather a man who manages to manipulate the truth until it takes on a different meaning. Shea really manages to sell the idea that this is a man people might follow and listen to. Elsewhere, Henry Simmons brings a simmering intensity to his role, bringing a great deal of misplaced passion to his missions. Julian Marquis and Michael Mosley both fare well enough in their parts, and Mary Stuart Masterson is engaging in her small handful of scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The non-linear storytelling structure is really quite exasperating, and feels like nothing more than an unnecessary gimmick. Am I the only one who feels like this particular technique is being abused to no end these days? Show a scene of someone participating in terrorist activities, show a flashback of that same person behaving like an ordinary human being, and voila! You've just found the recipe for creating Plotburger Helper's Instant Suspense (just continue to add flashbacks and flash forwards, stir for 90 minutes). What is particularly bothersome is that many view non-linear storytelling as being quite clever, when in fact it is frequently something that leads to laziness in plotting.
Another major annoyance is the electric-guitar driven score by Ben Butler and Mario Grigorov, which really never seems to have any idea of what it is trying to say. The DVD transfer of the digitally-shot film is all right, the only visual problems come from the weak lighting and occasionally poor location choices. Sound is just fine as well, though dialogue is muffled on occasion. As for the DVD itself, there's almost nothing in the way of extras. We only get the film's original theatrical trailer.
Finally, despite the fact that The Insurgents is unquestionably a thought-provoking film, it's not necessarily one of the best catalysts for inspiring thoughts about these issues. To be honest, I actually found the plotline dealing with this issue in Julie Taymor's musical Across the Universe to be equally deep and provocative. When a trippy musical manages to accomplish in just a portion of its running time what a serious drama takes its entire running time to do, I'd definitely pick the trippy musical. If what you're seeking is a more in-depth examination of the subject, you can skip both movies and just watch Sleeper Cell.
I cannot say that The Insurgents is a bad film, and I honestly believe that it does a reasonably good job of examining an interesting subject. However, I do have a hard time justifying the existence of the film. It's not something that anyone particularly needs to see, because you can see the exact same thing done better elsewhere. There's nothing wrong with having a microwaved dinner, but why would you choose the microwaved dinner when you've got a fresh, homecooked meal sitting right next to it? Okay, that's enough of my metaphors featuring food as films about domestic terrorism. If you wind up watching The Insurgents, you won't regret it, but if you have the option, don't watch it. Confused? That's okay. Just don't go blow up anything.
Guilty-ish, but, ah, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Allumination Filmworks
• Theatrical Trailer
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