“The Panama Deception” is a forceful, straightforward condemnation of the Reagan-Bush policies in Panama, particularly the 1989 U.S. invasion and its aftermath. Despite very modest production values, docu’s relevant message–a total dismissal of the “official story”–and timely release in an election year will increase its visibility, ensuring bookings in major cities, airings on cable TV and long life on video.
Shot and initially presented on video but to be released theatrically in a 35 mm transfer, Barbara Trent’s new docu places the December 1989 invasion in a broad historical perspective, chronicling American involvement in the region since 1903, when the U.S. gained control of Panama from the French. This background is useful in understanding the changes in the administration’s diplomatic relations with Panama.
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Docu examines the rise of Manuel Noriega to power and how Ronald Reagan and George Bush first supported him (Bush boosted his income when he was on the CIA payroll), then turned him into a “mythic” villain by labeling him “a vicious drug-lord dictator.” According to the docu, Bush also had a personal agenda in Panama, wishing to wipe out his wimp image and demonstrate machismo.
“The Panama Deception” presents a consistent theory of the military intervention, claiming that the protection of American citizens, Noriega’s drug trafficking and the death of a Marine were just excuses for implementing a long-planned policy to challenge and renegotiate the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal treaties.
The disastrous effects of the U.S. invasion are on display: massive carnage, brutality against innocent citizens, refugees living in poverty.
But pic’s most potent aspect is its merciless indictment of the news media (print and TV) as puppets manipulated by the White House. Interviewing scholars, officials and journalists, docu holds that the news media is part of the military-industrial complex, lacking independence in its coverage and ability to criticize the power elite.
Film’s strategy is juxtaposition of official statements with actual footage of the invasion’s atrocities and life in a military-controlled country. Particularly effective are contrasts between Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams’ repeated statement “I have seen no reports of U.S. troops executing anyone in Panama” and devastating images of destroyed or burned villages.
There is also vast difference between the official estimates of casualties– 500 according to Gen. Maxwell Thurman, 3,000 to 4,000 according to U.N. and Panamanian Human Rights Commissions.
But “The Panama Deception” is not as powerful as Trent’s acclaimed 1988 “Cover Up: Behind the Iran Contra Affair.” There is little truly new information , and Elizabeth Montgomery’s functional narration lacks emotional impact.
A major deficiency is the English-dubbed testimony of Panamanian refugees; their evidence would have been more authentic and wrenching if it had been subtitled. Considering the censorship and restrictive control of the media during and after the invasion, however, it is amazing that Trent gained access to her footage at all.