Courtesy of Robert Stewart
Brad Crowder and David McKay at the 2008 Republican National Convention. They were later arrested and charged with domestic terrorism.
Brad Crowder and David McKay at the 2008 Republican National Convention. They were later arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Courtesy of Robert Stewart
Better This World, a documentary film premiering tonight on PBS's POV series and streaming online beginning tomorrow, is part conspiracy thriller, part mystery, part drama, and, in the end, part disaster movie.
While it's about what happened to two political protestors accused of manufacturing (but not using) Molotov cocktails during the 2008 Republican National Convention, and while — make no mistake — it is fundamentally a full-throated argument that they were treated very unfairly, that's not primarily because the filmmakers argue in favor of either their politics or their tactics in and of themselves. The central questions the film raises are neither about whether their cause was noble nor about whether throwing Molotov cocktails as a form of political dissent is justified. Instead, the film looks at the cases of Brad Crowder and David McKay the way one might analyze a disaster — one in which they most certainly played a role, but, the film argues, other people did, too.
What unfolds is a complex story that it would be unfair to talk about in detail, since the filmmakers take great pains to reveal some major facts (unknown by those who haven't read about the case in the news) along the way. The film ultimately touches on questions about surveillance aimed at combating domestic terrorism, and it questions the difference between watching people and, for lack of a more elegant term, egging them on.
Better This World also introduces you to one of the most perplexing people to show up in a documentary in a while: the fascinating and deeply unsettling Brandon Darby, a charismatic activist who met Crowder and McKay along the way and accompanied them to the convention in St. Paul, Minn. The precise nature of Darby's beliefs and personality is elusive and continues to unfold through the closing credits. But if you fear that the film, because it's so sympathetic to the predicament of Crowder and McKay, is purely a simplistic political tale in which everyone on the left-hand side of the story is good and everyone in the right-hand side is bad, rest assured that the filmmakers are at least as suspicious of Darby as they are of anyone.
There are several hard turns along the way — among other complications, the dynamics of any case involving two defendants are always tricky, given that there is a built-in question of whether they will, should, or can take advantage of the opportunity to turn against each other or plead guilty. As one of them points out, that's just game theory. In the latter parts of the film, that's what's most resonant emotionally: a return to the friendship between these two guys who ultimately have to navigate their own cases.
There isn't anybody who's let off the hook here; certainly, filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega are deeply skeptical of the actions of law enforcement in this case, and it would be misleading to suggest that their point of view isn't evident and isn't potentially divisive. But as a disaster movie — one that looks at two guys who seem to have started out without any particularly dangerous ideas and wound up accused of domestic terrorism — it's pretty compelling.