A penetrating, affirming, and bracing examination of what the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would deem as “one of the great trials of the twentieth century”, filmmaker Anthony Giacchino’s Camden 28 broaches on similar issues of Bernadine Mellis’ The Forest for the Trees in the government – and specifically, the FBI’s – systematic abuse of power in its practice of surveillance, infiltration, intimidation, and discreditation of activist organizations as a means of curbing dissent against current national policy. Composed of interviews with members of the original prosecuted Camden 28, reenactments, archival material, and excerpts from trial transcripts, what emerges is a profoundly disturbing account of the government’s deliberate (and insidious) attempts to sabotage the activities of (with the goal of bringing down and dismantling) the Catholic Left – a loose alliance of Catholic priests, blue collar workers, housewives, conscientious objectors, families of fallen soldiers, and other ordinary citizens opposed to the Vietnam War who, as the tide of popular opinion was beginning to turn against the Vietnam War, engaged in a series of high visibility “actions” (such as public burning of draft cards and vandalism of draft board records for 1A-classified, first line recruits) to protest the draft throughout the northeast and mid central United States. At the heart of the issue is the Camden 28’s surveillance of a federal building that housed the draft documents for the district as a potential candidate for a break-in (for what the members would subsequently describe as a surgical strike against the draft mechanism by dismantling the cross-referencing system used to file the draft papers) which, given the impenetrable security of the building, would likely have resulted in aborted plans, had it not been for the aid of a perhaps all too knowledgeable handyman who seemed to have convenient workarounds and the proper tools to gain entry into the secure building, and who, on the evening of the break-in, was nowhere to be found. Later revealed to be an FBI informant who naïvely sought to protect his friends from committing a crime believing that the government would intervene and prevent the break-in, he instead found himself manipulated by agents who furnished him with tools and information to carry out the break-in for the specific purpose of arresting the group and striking a blow to the Catholic Left movement. Opening with the almost comical testimony of Father Michael Doyle who, at the very onset, admitted that he had, indeed, broken into the draft board office that fateful evening, the defense then sought to exonerate the Camden 28 through the process of jury nullification, presenting a series of moral arguments against the injustice of the very war itself: from the two priests (and brothers) who evoked their profound spiritual, moral, and vocational duty to stop the suffering and bloodshed, to the statistics of the disproportionality of lower income young men from the impoverished neighborhoods of Camden being drafted to war, to a mother who had lost one son in Vietnam and now stood to lose her other son for his participation in trying to stop the senseless (and seemingly interminable) war that killed his brother. Culminating with the Camden 28’s reunion at the site of their original courtroom trial, the film serves as a trenchant reminder of moral conviction in the face of strong-arm politics, institutional intimidation, and social stigma.
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