Doc of the Day: The Panama Deception Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Panama Deception

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 21, 2012

An expose of the hidden motivations and actions of the United States invasion of Panama. Day Two of Oscar Winners Week.

Dir. Barbara Trent, 1992, 91 min

There are a lot of things I hate about how the mainstream treats documentaries in our country, and it all boils down to how little it pays attention to the form. There are so many urgent and important issues that documentarians are trying to call attention to, and too few people are willing to listen to them. Even with an Oscar win, The Panama Deception proved nothing more than a Cassandra cry, gone unheeded by the public. I know it’s useless, but I think about what kind of course history may have taken if more people had paid attention to this particular film, and it makes me seethe.

The film is a no-holds-barred indictment of American military interventionism and corporate corruption, built around the 1989 invasion of Panama. We went in to remove Manuel Noriega from power. He was a tyrannical, drug-dealing ruler. He also got the job from the U.S., and we were willing to tolerate him as long as he played ball. But he refused to back down from the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which granted control of the Panama Canal to Panama by the end of the century, so he had to go. So America concocted some paper-thin excuses to declare war, against the outrage of the rest of the world. And once the army went in, they wreaked havoc, attacking civilian areas for unclear reasons and killing between 2,500 and 3,500 innocent people (the “official” body count was 250). It was, in short, a clusterfuck all over from start to finish.

No one in the U.S. heard any of this. A news media, acting in utter complicity with the government, presented them with a cheerful, sanitized version of the events. If they reported at all that the U.N. voted to reprimand us for the action, it showed up in a ten second segment before being swiftly brushed aside. These were the actions of politicians concerned only with a bottom line, the cost in human lives be damned. One official stands by the invasion, claiming that he would have changed nothing about it, because there is nothing he wouldn’t sacrifice for “freedom and democracy.” Which is a laugh, since he wasn’t the one making the sacrifices. Or maybe he meant there were no people he wouldn’t sacrifice.

The Panama invasion was new president George Bush flexing muscle to prove that we wasn’t a pushover. It was a test run for the Gulf War. And, in the long haul those architects of destruction for fun and profit couldn’t have foreseen, it foreshadowed the later conflict in Iraq. It’s an inescapable cycle, and the film knows exactly whom to finger as the perpetuator of that cycle: the corporate forces who make money off of misery. In the most depressing sequence of the story, the film rails against the oligarchical power in America, those who buy speech with money. And every single problem is exactly the same as it is today. Hell, it’s worse. It looks like the tide of the masses is finally beginning to turn against these assholes, but we’ll see what happens.

The doc threatened to lose me early on, with bombastic sound effects and editing that make it look like a bad episode of America’s Most Wanted. Noriega comes across as the latest pedophile to look out for, not the dictator of an impoverished country. There are graphical transitions between scenes that look as if the editor had just discovered the gimmick functions on the edit bay that he could use. The film has a very low-rent look and feel, but the strength of the subject pulls it through. I was past caring about cheapness once I got invested in the story.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to forgive the presentation if I had been more knowledgeable of the topic beforehand. If this is a story you’ve heard before, you may not be able to get past the sheer 90’s-ness of it all. There are some elements that veer into conspiracy theory territory; the filmmakers probably shouldn’t have included the Panamanians who claim to have seen the US army use lasers and energy weapons. However, the doc hits way more than it misses. The Panama Deception a vital, enraging movie, and it helps throw the world today in a clearer context.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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