If one-quarter of its accusations are true, “Top Priority: The Terror Within” reps a flaming indictment of the Dept. of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office and even the Screen Actors Guild. But the film’s charges are so multitudinous and sketchy, the thread of the logic so tenuous and/or casual, that it’s hard to accept much of what helmer Asif Akbar has collected in this sensationalized docu about a government whistleblower’s persecution and a bureaucracy out of control. Conspiracy theorists may flock; the more timid will wait for homevid and cover of darkness.
Incorporating dramatic re-creations, computer simulations, hysterical graphics and the seemingly incessant sound of helicopters, “Top Priority” tells the story of Julia Davis, a Ukrainian immigrant-cum-U.S. Customs officer stationed at the San Ysidro border-crossing in San Diego. There, Davis reported a seemingly critical lapse in security that occurred July 4, 2004: Twenty-three citizens of “special-interest countries ” — aka terrorist nations — managed to cross into the United States without the required interrogation or paperwork, at a time when Homeland Security had fixed the Fourth of July as a likely time for an Al Qaeda encore to 9/11.
What Davis set off, allegedly, was not a tightening of security or even a search for the 23 dubious visitors, but a desperate bureaucratic effort to avert a PR disaster. That effort led to Davis being declared a terrorist threat, investigations that continued even after she quit her job and her Yucca Valley home was raided by Black Hawk helicopters and a battalion of special federal agents.
No one — including the seemingly scurrilous ICE investigators Herbert Kaufer and Jeffrey Deal — denies that the raid took place (the Kaufer-Deal depositions are part of the film’s large archival reservoir). What they don’t talk about, at least oncamera — and what Davis’ lawyer never seems to have asked — is why such efforts were made to go after a relatively insignificant figure such as Davis, or, for that matter, what exactly she was charged with. Surrounding the reams of unreadable documents that appear onscreen and are meant to bolster the Davis case is a swirl of foggy facts, random charges and shadowy implications.
These include the suggestion that the death of actress Brittany Murphy — and, a year later, her husband Simon Monjack — were both a result of their having been tangentially involved in the Davis case. The Hollywood Reporter also takes a shot from Akbar for having pooh-poohed the Murphy-Monjack claim that they were being surveilled by government agents. That a neighbor of Davis’ in Yucca Valley also turned up dead, a year after videotaping those Black Hawk helicopters, certainly adds fuel to a very smoky fire.
But the film never manages to nail anything down. This is partly due to Akbar’s failure to confront anyone on the other side of the argument (it’s quite likely they refused to talk, but he never says), as well as his willingness to construct or accept very shaky syllogisms. The L.A. coroner admitted at one time that because not every death can be investigated thoroughly, it’s quite likely people have gotten away with murder. By the film’s logic, then, Murphy’s and Monjack’s deaths were not investigated thoroughly; therefore, Murphy and Monjack were murdered.
It’s a little infuriating, because the individuals “Top Priority” is targeting — including Bush Customs appointee Robert Bonner, the L.A. law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and SAG, which apparently gave the feds personal health information about Davis without a fight — might very well warrant this kind of scrutiny. The docu just never makes a solid case, even as it flings accusations about like Frisbees. It also commits a kind of stylistic suicide: When you adopt the flourishes of reality TV, you get the kind of believers you deserve.
Production values are adequate but more than a little overwrought, especially a recurring image of the American flag behind bars. It doesn’t help that every principal in the film seems to be reading from a script.