The spirit of 1960s antiwar activism lives on in Robbie Leppzer’s “Act of Conscience,” a sincere but overlong documentary that makes only token stabs at even-handedness. Pic focuses on pacifists who withhold payment of their federal income taxes to protest “war and military spending.” Appropriately enough, it is scheduled to air April 15 on Cinemax.
Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, of Colrain, a small rural town in Western Massachusetts, are depicted as soft-spoken, deeply committed idealists who are morally outraged by U.S. military policies. (They appear especially upset about U.S. backing of Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s.) “Act of Conscience” introduces them after they have withheld income tax payments for 14 years
As pic begins, Kehler is arrested for refusing to vacate his farmhouse, which has been seized by federal marshals and IRS agents. His troubles don’t end once he is released from prison. The farmhouse is put up for auction by the IRS, and sold to a young middle-class couple who might otherwise be unable to afford a new home.
At first, Kehler, Corner and many sympathizers try to occupy the house. After they are ejected, and the new owners move in, the activists, joined by dozens of like-minded supporters from throughout the country, maintain a round-the-clock vigil near the home. Things are greatly complicated by the fact that, while the new owners legally purchased the house, the land itself belongs to a local trust. As the legal battles drag on through the courts, the vigil continues.
Danny Franklin and Terry Charnesky, the new owners, are given relatively fair treatment by Leppzer. They come across as innocent bystanders who simply wanted to buy a piece of the American Dream at a discount price. (They paid $5,400 for the farmhouse at the IRS auction.) Charnesky is refreshingly blunt-spoken as she unapologetically argues for her right to her new home. And she is occasionally funny, particularly when she speaks about “those hippies” outside.
Even so, there’s never any real doubt about where Leppzer’s sympathies lie. A bit too much running time is devoted to repetitious speeches and songs by Kehler and company, whose claim to the moral high ground is never questioned. Kehler himself often comes perilously close to sounding sanctimonious. Pete Seeger and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan drop by to offer their support, and are dutifully recorded by Leppzer.
“Act of Conscience” begs several questions raised by the actions of Kehler and Corner. For example: Would deeply committed racists who withhold taxes to protest affirmative action be equally justified? What about right-to-lifers, who might want to protest laws regulating protests at abortion clinics? Or anti-Semites who object to U.S. government support of Israel?
Martin Sheen, an actor long associated with social activism, provides the somewhat over-emphatic narration. At times, he sounds like he’s reading the script for a Toyota commercial after downing too many cups of coffee.
To its credit, “Act of Conscience” raises a few thought-provoking points. But the technically proficient pic isn’t likely to convert many who aren’t already sympathetic to its cause