Even as “The Camden 28” documents from multiple perspectives and in minute detail a crucial, if somewhat lesser known, moment in the storied Vietnam antiwar movement, it’s hard not to feel that director Anthony Giacchino‘s aim isn’t merely historical recordkeeping. Created amidst an ongoing war that has been widely compared to the nation-devouring Vietnamese conflagration (and is arguably lacking that conflict’s broad activist counterforce), the film exudes a certain sense of awe at the actions of the Camden 28, coupled with some (very) mild finger-wagging, almost as if to say to the current antiwar crowd: “Look what these folks were doing.” An epilogue featuring contemporary footage of aged Camden 28 members marching peaceably against the Iraq war only drives the point home, bluntly.
Though let’s be clear: the 28’s attempted burglary of a federal draft board office in downtown Camden isn’t violence on the level of that perpetrated by the Weather Underground. Instead it represents a kind of well-meaning civil disobedience that historian Howard Zinn compares in the film to something like the Boston Tea Party. While the film does a nice job of charting (and promoting) the reasoning and planning behind this “middle road” of political protest, it might have been a stronger document with a slightly tweaked focus. The greatest missed opportunity of “The Camden 28” is the potential to revive for present-day viewers the dormant idea of a religious, antiwar left – two of the group’s members were ordained Catholic priests, one a protestant minister, and others active members of some church community, but this is information that’s parceled out as a matter of course rather than a rallying cry for a new kind of political engagement from the pulpit. When the fastest growing belief system in the U.S. marches in ideological lockstep with our government and has based large portions of its organization near crucial military installations, images of collared priests participating in demonstrations are a welcome shock to the current reality of how faith is perceived in America.
First-time filmmaker Giacchino plays things aesthetically safe, telling the tale of these mild revolutionaries through a tried-and-true interviews ‘n’ archive combination – further proof that good stories and great ideas don’t immediately translate into compelling documentary; if they did, a film like “Why We Fight” would be a masterpiece. But there’s a growing sense that the increased need for documentaries to fill in the massive holes left unplumbed by the traditional media isn’t being met with a comparable increase in aesthetic sophistication. “The Camden 28″‘s most striking juxtaposition – slides of destroyed Vietnamese villages blended with boarded up and burnt Camden row-houses – isn’t even the filmmaker’s own; Father Michael Doyle successfully used the presentation during his trial in defense of the 28’s actions. Casting about for commonality between the downtrodden worldwide, and focusing on the ways our nation’s furtherance of poverty via war abroad simultaneously engenders similar conditions at home was a radical idea then, still is, and probably always will be. It’s unfortunate that “The Camden 28,” for all its value as a history lesson, can’t conjure anything as comparably grand.
Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.