The filmmakers trace the precedent of the State Secrets Privilege back to a 1953 Supreme Court decision in which the widow of Robert Reynolds (an Air Force contractor who died in a then-unexplained plane crash) was told that the official accident report could not be revealed because it would reveal sensitive information.
As it turns out, Reynolds wasn’t testing secret equipment as the government claimed. But in “Secrecy,” the secrets themselves are not the point. Although Galison and Moss do zero in on specific examples like the Reynolds case, the statements made in their interviews deal mostly in generalities about the political and ideological ramifications of withholding secrets from the American public. This kind of discourse turns the viewer into little more than a newspaper-reader and makes the personal story of Reynold’s widow seems reflexively important but oddly foreign.
In a series of remarks before a screening at the Harvard Film Archive, Moss himself admitted that, in filming “Secrecy”—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January—he eschewed his usual individual focus for a more political one: “Working autobiographically as I had, given the political climate, seemed inappropriate.”
Instead, the filmmakers’ subjects talk to us about “intelligence failures,” “latitude of action,” “secretocrats,” and other jargony neologisms that you won’t find in Moss’ previous film “The Same River Twice” (although the aging hippies of that movie might have had a few interesting things to say about the side of the government portrayed in “Secrecy”).
But of course, it’s titillating to think about what the government is hiding from us, especially in these vague terms. Secrecy has “sexual connotations,” says Thomas S. Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “What was it that your parents did at night to make kids? What does the national security state do to wage war?”
Good question. But “Secrecy” doesn’t offer concrete answers. Instead, it just lets us know that there’s a whole lot out there that we don’t know. This isn’t a history of the Central Intelligence Agency—most of the figures interviewed only discuss the post-9/11 political climate—but doesn’t lack a narrative backbone. The filmmakers gracefully walk a fine line between exploring the abstract elements of secrecy and the real consequences of disclosing secrets.
As one interviewee tells us, after the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, details of the National Security Agency’s efforts to track the IJO were leaked to the press and the group went underground. Six months later, the barracks of the international peacekeepers stationed in Beirut were bombed, killing over two hundred U.S. Marines.
The filmmakers are careful not to privilege any single viewpoint, or even to entertain the notion that there are fewer than two or three sides in the secrecy “debate.” The composition of the film is as thoughtfully considered as its visual qualities. Images of white paper fading into darkness and VES professor Ruth Lingford’s ghostly animations are intercut with interviews and newsreel footage, suggesting the simultaneous erasure and cataloging of occult information. As the filmmakers delve deeper into their murky subject matter, the music grows more ominous and the sound stages on which the interviews are filmed darken with layered shadows.
Galison and Moss coax surprisingly frank admissions from a dozen people whose lives have been steeped in secrets. These confessions are given in an almost uniformly even-handed, rational tone that betrays their gravity. As Melissa Boyle Mahle, former CIA Chief of Base in Jerusalem, says to us, “A democracy is not a natural state of being. A democracy needs its citizens to be in on the rules of the game. If we change those rules, democracy might be a casualty.”
—Reviewer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org