No film will ever resolve the debate over the proper uses of and limits to government secrecy, and the filmmakers behind “Secrecy” are wise to not even try. Though co-director (with Harvard science history professor Peter Galison) Robb Moss’ previous film was the excellent “The Same River Twice,” new doc is more in stylistic keeping with Errol Morris’ artful blend of aestheticized talking heads and visual accompaniments. Topical enough for some buyer interest but not too tied to immediate issues, pic is likely to be a victim of the theatrical market downturn for docs and embraced by prestigious cablers.
Certain auds anticipating a harsh attack on the U.S state security apparatus may be surprised at pic’s early section, which helpfully reminds those who’ve forgotten their history that Pearl Harbor was a massive intelligence failure. Former CIA exec officer James B. Bruce notes that the U.S. needs intelligence tools to combat enemies, and that the uses of secrecy are fundamental to the tool kit.
Even more compelling is National Security Agency vet Mike Levin describing how a press leak of a secret channel between Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah prevented detection of the source that bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982.
No two parties in the secrecy debate are more at odds than spy mavens like Levin and investigative reporters like the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, who filed some of the first stories stating that there were no WMDs in Iraq, contradicting White House claims at the time. These two sides demonstrate how a society based on freedom of information will always struggle with the opposite need for secrecy.
More useful for auds is hearing from a CIA case officer like Melissa Boyle Mahle, who argues for the needs for secrets in intelligence operations (“journalists treat secrecy as a game, but intelligence officers treat it as a matter of survival”), but relates the human cost of being a spy and how secrecy carries a price for family relations.
After hearing Mahle or Army Lt. Gen. Charles Swift talk about the abuses of intelligence at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where habeas corpus is suspended by executive order, it becomes apparent that a new shame over the excessive uses of secrecy is clearly being felt by today’s military vets.
One of pic’s most potent messages, however, is that the enhanced secrecy systems, which deter information from being shared, likely helped the 9/11 attack to go undetected.
Pic is layered with all types of visual decoration to make the torrent of discussion play cinematically, and, though the device is now a familiar one, certain touches such as B&W animation lend a creepy and effective mood, while lensing of conceptual artwork on the theme of secrecy is merely a visual appendage. Chyld King’s assured editing is critical to maintaining aud interest, and John Kusiak’s minimalist score is used to keep the flow going.