“The Camden 28” is an unremarkable talking-head docu nudged nearer to must-see status by the remarkable timeliness of its antiwar subject matter. In 1971, in Camden, N.J., 28 people participated in a break-in at a draft board office in protest of the Vietnam war. The 28, among them four priests and a minister, belonged to the Catholic Left, a designation that nowadays seems almost self-contradictory. The story of commitment, betrayal and lies that emerged at their trial offers a telling flashback to another unpopular war and a distinctly different moral imperative. Docu opened July 27 at Gotham’s Cinema Village.
Helmer Anthony Giacchino, in his feature docu bow, thankfully makes no attempt to recap the ’60s in a nutshell. He does, however, illustrate how the Camden action followed in the wake of several Selective Service raids, most famously by the Berrigan brothers and the rest of the Catonsville Nine. But the Camden 28 were the first such destroyers of government property to be acquitted on all charges, in what Supreme Court Justice William Brennan hailed as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.”
Interviewing several of the 28 in the present day, Giacchino pieces together the events surrounding the break-in and the treachery that led to the group’s arrest by the FBI. Taking orders directly from J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI actively sought to entrap the 28, seeking leads to an earlier theft and the leakage of highly compromising documents from FBI headquarters at Media, Pa.
Giacchino’s somewhat clumsy attempt to build suspense over which member informed on the group (fairly obvious from the outset) is quickly subsumed by tragic developments and turnarounds. But the passionate, matter-of-fact commitment of these ordinary citizens willing to risk jailtime for their moral convictions remains constant, as does their belief in the immorality of the Vietnam war and the link between the poverty and neglect of run-down Camden and the millions spent fighting a war that claimed a disproportionate number of the city’s black and Latino residents.
By the time the case came to court in 1973, the political tide had completely turned, and it was obvious that the judge, the juryand even one of the prosecutors had little desire to punish the self-styled “conscience of America” — particularly for an act that would have been abandoned as unfeasible by the well-meaning amateurs without the active enablement of the FBI.
Headlines and occasional newsreels help flesh out historical happenings whose current relevance is so striking, it’s unsurprising to see many of the 28 carrying posters at Iraq War protest rallies today.
Tech credits are adequate.