It’s a story that requires a sympathetic eye: Twentysomething Texans/radical lefty activists David McKay and Brandley Crowder brought molotov cocktails to the 2008 Republican National Convention and were jailed for it. However, the tragedy stems from their legitimate desire to lash out at what they perceived as misguided governance — and when they are betrayed by the leader who inspired them to consider violent means, they never get the chance to uncover the proper channel for their dismay.
That’s the main point of interest in “Better This World,” directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s compelling overview of the developments that led the FBI to arrest the so-called “Texas Two.” Frustrated by the conservative values dominating their home community in Midland, Texas, they decide to act out. It’s a journey (though not the violence of their would-be destination) that seems justified. By allowing McKay and Crowder to speak about their predicament, the filmmakers make it clear that neither defendant deserves the harsh judgments heading their way.
The boys’ prison time stems from the unexpectedly traitorous Brandon Darby. An Austin-based activist turned FBI informant, he initially radicalized both McKay and Crowder. Co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, Darby wore a wire while encouraging his fellowmen to prepare explosive devices for their convention protests. Although his complicity with the FBI may have constituted entrapment, Darby gets to play the righteous man while his recruits face as much as 30 years behind bars.
The well-assembled footage includes devastating behind-the-scenes recordings of McKay and Crowder strategizing from behind bars and resisting pressures to rat each other out. Galloway and Duane de la Vega use a remarkably candid series of recordings to flesh out the timeline, including audiotapes of FBI interrogations and collect calls that McKay makes to his dad and girlfriend from prison. Interviews with the two victims in jail, as well as the voices of FBI agents, family and friends, track the downward spiral of the activists’ lives following their initial incarceration.
However, it’s never entirely clear what inspired Darby’s betrayal, which leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. In a letter, he considers his decision to become an informant in light of larger “efforts to better this world,” but his moral ground is shaky at best. A former girlfriend discusses Darby’s excitement over the prospects of being an informant, despite the impact it has on people whose radical intentions stemmed from his own.
With a story that boils down to one man’s curious decision to fuck over his eager disciples, the movie becomes an inquiry into the tension between activism and the legal measures that strike it down. Regardless of McKay and Crowder’s motives, they were swindled out of finding the right outlet to express an authentic sentiment; Darby shut them down before they got the chance to even consider doing the right thing. When the informant finally discusses his act in an infuriating radio recording that plays over the credits, his feeble justifications make it clear that the only world he bettered was his own self-interested existence.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With the immediacy of its premise (one of the boys is still in prison, the other got out last year), “Better This World” should get a good response at left-leaning festivals and especially on the documentary circuit. It may also gain wider visibility if larger media outlets use it as a way to explore the lingering questions about Darby and his former activist brethren.
criticWIRE grade: B+