You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Top Priority: The Terror Within

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.

With: Julia Davis, B.J. Davis. Herbert Kaufer, Jeffrey Dean, Chance E. Gordon. Narrator: Ron Peterson.

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.

Popular on Variety

Top Priority: The Terror Within

Production: A Fleur de Lis Film Studios release and presentation. Produced by Asif Akbar, John D. Schofield, B.J. Davis, Julia Davis. Executive producers, Roger Burlage, Raquel Diaz, John A. Haddad. Co-producers, Lindsay Hudson, B.J. Poole. Directed by Asif Akbar. Written by Julia Davis.

Crew: Camera (color), Akbar; editor, Paul Robinson; music, Cleveland Bledsoe Jr.; sound (Dolby Digital), Kenneth L. Johnson; re-recording mixer, Alex Arias; associate producers, Chris Fishel, Jon Kazy. Reviewed at IFC Center, New York, July 1, 2012. Running time: 114 MIN.

With: With: Julia Davis, B.J. Davis. Herbert Kaufer, Jeffrey Dean, Chance E. Gordon. Narrator: Ron Peterson.

More Film

  • Maelle Arnaud

    Lumière Chief Programmer Maelle Arnaud: 'Film History Doesn't Have Parity'

    LYON, France   — As the Lumière Institute’s head programmer since 2001, Maelle Arnaud helped launched the Lumière Festival in 2009 and has watched it grow in international esteem over the decade that followed. This year, the festival ran 190 films across 424 screenings in theaters all over town. The festival will come to a [...]

  • Girl with Green Eyes

    Talking Pictures TV: Bringing the Past Back to Life in the U.K.

    LYON, France – Since its launch in 2015, Talking Pictures TV has become the fastest-growing independent channel in the U.K. with a growing library of British film and TV titles that span five decades, according to founder Noel Cronin. Noel Cronin attended the Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) in Lyon, France, where he [...]

  • Wings of Desire

    German Heritage Sector Applauds Increased Digitization, Preservation Funding

    LYON, France  — Germany’s film heritage sector is celebrating a new federal and state-funded initiative launching in January that will provide €10 million ($11.15 million) a year towards the digitization and preservation of feature films. Rainer Rother, the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, outlined the plan at a panel discussion at the Lumière Festival’s [...]

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content