It’s no secret that in recent years HBO Documentary Films has become one of the most reliable sources of funding and/or broadcasting for adventurous non-fiction filmmaking. But it’s worth restating that fact when two of its newest productions are on display in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. (One hastens to add that Tribeca is, among the major American film festivals, one of the most prolific and creative programmers of documentary films.)
At least on the surface it would be hard to find much common ground between “Regarding Susan Sontag” and “The Newburgh Sting.” The former is a well-crafted if occasionally overeager portrait of one of our most controversial and creative public intellectuals. The latter is a meticulously argued recounting of a supposed terrorist plot that landed four African-American men in prison for allegedly conspiring to bomb two Jewish institutions in the Bronx and to shoot down a military plane.
What links the two films is the ardor of their creators, Nancy Kates (“Sontag”), and the team of David Heilbroner and Kate Davis (“Newburgh”), and an abiding humanist faith in the power of law, logic and reason. That those hefty values fail to win the day in the second film says a great deal about our time.
Perhaps Sontag would have been unsurprised by that failure. Her own politics were undeniably of the radical humanist stripe. “I feel as a Jew a special responsibility to side with the oppressed and the weak,” she says emphatically at one point in the film. There is a quote from Albert Camus brandished elsewhere in the film that speaks loudly to her own ideals: “The day that I am no more than a writer, I shall no longer write.”
Regardless of how one feels about Sontag, it would be impossible to describe her as “no more than a writer.” She directed theater in a Sarajevo under siege, made a documentary about the post-Six-Day-War-pre-Yom-Kippur-War State of Israel, wrote novels, a play and several screenplays. But it was as an essayist that she made her mark, the work revealing the deft and playful mind of a syncretist, synthesizer and — in the best sense of the word — popularizer. Sontag was a genius at taking difficult concepts and works of art and making them accessible, a skill not to be sneezed at, although one suspects it isn’t how she would want to remembered.
Kates tells Sontag’s story with remarkable fairness. She makes no effort to either hide or exploit the writer’s mercurial, often difficult personality, her sexual voraciousness, occasionally cruel egoism, her shortcomings as a filmmaker and fiction writer. The debate over Sontag’s sexuality is rehearsed once again; the final word goes to Fran Liebowitz, who speaks convincingly for those who chose not to out Sontag as a lesbian during her lifetime or in the immediate aftermath of her death. (Sontag would definitively come out on her own terms in her posthumously published journals, of which the film makes effective use on many topics.)
For this viewer, the real revelation of “Regarding Susan Sontag” was her complex relationship to her Jewish identity. When their widowed mother remarried and the family dropped the surname Rosenblatt in favor of the new stepfather’s Sontag, Susan and her younger sister Judith were relieved. As Judith recounts in the film, as Rosenblatt “we were so clearly identified … as Jewish, my sister got hit in the head a few times and called names.”
Yet Susan remained a strongly self-identified secular Jew, and some of her most memorable writing, particularly her famously systematic takedown of Leni Riefenstahl, draws on that identity to great effect. And her long-term partners tended to be Jewish, for whatever that’s worth. (In fact, one of the film’s most interesting sidebars is a profile of her collaborator, longtime friend and occasional lover French actress and film producer Nicole Stéphane, who happened to be a Rothschild.)
For all of its many virtues, though, “Regarding Susan Sontag” is a frustrating film. At 100 minutes it feels overlong. Kates runs through a dismaying gamut of visual tricks in her transitional sequences that seem designed for little purpose other than to draw attention to the filmmaking. Sontag remains on some deep level elusive, and although the film is frequently fascinating, I suspect that whatever “key” there is to her personality and intellect is to be found in the collections of her essays and her journals.
If the truth of a single, maddeningly complicated life is difficult to discern, how much more so is the truth of a single event told from multiple points of view. David Heilbroner and Kate Davis had unprecedented access to film and video footage shot by an FBI informant who put in motion the plot that became “The Newburgh Sting.” That informant, Shaheed Hussain, had been the primary instigator of another anti-terrorism case in Albany that was also controversial. But the conviction of the “Newburgh Four” — career criminals James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams (not related to David) and Laguerre Payen — raised more red flags for some legal experts. In a June 2010 New York Times report by William Glaberson, Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, which tracks terrorism prosecutions, observed, “The degree to which the government seems to have led on the defendants is much more aggressive than we have seen in other cases.”
As seen in the documentary film, Hussain’s videos actually seem to confirm that assertion. As a former FBI undercover agent interviewed in the film notes, there were numerous procedural irregularities in the case that strengthened Hussain’s hand. The facts that he remained the principle contact with the alleged conspirators rather than handing the operation over to an FBI undercover agent, that he controlled the surveillance cameras, that the amount of money he was offering — $250,000 — was hugely beyond the figures usually bandied about in such sting operations, suggest a program that was a departure from the norms of sound undercover work. Hussain himself was less than a model citizen, a petty conman-grifter with a trail of questionable business dealings behind him; at the very least, he emerges from the videos as an annoying blowhard.
The question, then, on which the film, like the trial of the Newburgh Four, pivots is to what degree the conspiracy to bomb Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center, and to shoot down a military plane at Stewart International Airport were the result of government enticements. Neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors would appear in the film, so the tone feels lopsided to say the least; but it is impossible not to feel sympathy for David Williams’ aunt who says, “There ain’t no gang like the government.” On the other hand, the defendants’ appeal so far has been denied.
The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 27, all over the city. For detailed information, go to www.tribecafilm.com. “The Newburgh Sting” will be shown on HBO in July. “Regarding Susan Sontag” will be shown on HBO in the fall.