The mind-boggling documentary Better This World, showing tonight on PBS’s POV with way too little fanfare, could be the foundation of an outlandish black comedy centering on a grandiose narcissist nutcase who becomes a left-wing social activist and then, when he doesn’t rise high enough in the organization, decides to rat out his allies to the government while simultaneously egging them on to ever more violent acts of civil disobedience. Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon will have to make that version, because Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane’s nonfiction account is eerily suggestive — and alarming.
The protagonists are two young Midland, Texas, men, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were arrested in 2008 outside the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. Over the previous year, they’d been participating in protests against the political party that brought us “Shock and Awe,” the occupation of Iraq, “Bring ’em on,” extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, and a host of other criminal enterprises — but they hadn’t thought of breaking laws themselves until an older activist named Brandon Darby began to pepper them with questions like, “Don’t you feel like firearms are necessary sometimes?” (Their response was, “Huh? No.”) Darby fired them up, convinced them of the need to take their protest to the next level, helped them strategize, and then …
Well, you need to hear the story from Crowder and McKay, interviewed in jail (separately, of course, as they’re allowed no contact with each other) while awaiting trials that could send them to prison for 30 years. They are idealistic but nonideological young men, only politicized by the outrageous abuse of government power — of the sort now being used on them.
I was lucky enough to see Better This World at last spring’s Sarasota Film Festival, where two other doc jurors and I gave it top prize in an extraordinary category. It’s an artful weave of interviews, found footage, heartrending tapes of phone calls from the prisoners to both sets of parents and McKay’s girlfriend, and trial transcripts that might — again — have prompted gales of laughter in a different context. Prosecutors and U.S. Department of Justice agents speak on-camera, convinced that their vigilance has saved society from two dangerous anarchists. Darby does not appear, although ex-colleagues and an ex-girlfriend of his do, and he’s seen in a video he made in New Orleans while helping with the post-flood cleanup. He says, “I want to better this world.”
Darby turns out to be a charismatic guy — handsome, fluent, and logical in laying out what he sees wrong with American society and how it must be changed. If he’d recruited me to his cause at age 21 at the height of the Bush-Cheney horrors, I’d have drunk in his words, too, and maybe ended up in the same cell block as Crowder and McKay. Do prison newspapers have film critics? (“Four stars! An eye-opening documentary! I only wish I’d seen it five years ago!” —D.E., San Quentin Gazette)