Dirs: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner. US. 2014. 87mins
Four black Muslim men sit in federal prisons for plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx in 2009. This probing documentary says the FBI was the plot’s instigator and its smoking gun is the government’s own video.
The gambit concocted by the FBI for ex-prisoners with no military training to operate missile launchers and detonate explosives is an absurdist dance that begs for Danny DeVito or Adam Sandler.
Rigorous and incendiary, The Newburgh Sting premiered at Tribeca soon after journalists received prizes for their coverage of the Snowden spy revelations and Boston mourns the first anniversary of the bloody marathon bombing. The film should bring the media back to the 2009 case, and could ensure a theatrical showing in the US before it airs on HBO, which acquired it this spring.
International interest should be high for the doc about the FBI targeting a mosque to entrap its members, not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East and other Muslim regions. The elements of a classic frame- up – right out of 24 or Homeland or Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) – won’t help rally Muslims or anyone else to America’s side in the global war on terror.
The Newburgh Sting revisits an FBI undercover scheme to recruit would-be Muslim terrorists for a conspiracy to commit violent acts. A Pakistani informant appeared at a mosque in Newburgh, a decaying city in the Hudson Valley notorious for poverty, drugs and crime. Shahed Hussain proposed bombing two synagogues and destroying military planes at a National Guard airstrip with Stinger missiles. Four local men at the rock bottom of the 99% bought into the plan for which the FBI supplied the targets, the motivation (jihad), the explosives (dummy), and promises of money and food. They were convicted, despite overwhelming evidence of the FBI’s heavy hand.
Exhumed by veteran documentary makers Davis and Heilbroner (Stonewall Uprising, Southern Comfort), this dissection of a miscarriage of justice is methodical. But the film transcends the surgical doc procedural with the outrageous unbelievability of the would-be plot and the dramatic footage that documents it.
The gambit concocted by the FBI for ex-prisoners with no military training to operate missile launchers and detonate explosives is an absurdist dance that begs for Danny DeVito or Adam Sandler. What makes it believable in The Newburgh Sting is that we watch it unfold thanks to a camera installed in the home and in the cars (BMW and Mercedes) of Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani with a deep record of fraud, who navigates the government’s confidence game as if he’s imitating Peter Sellers in The Party (1968), a classic comedy of errors.
True to form for docs about law enforcement abuses, neither the feds, nor the plotters (now locked away), nor Shahed (untraceable), nor any politicians talk (except for Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in the US Congress). Yet the grey FBI video (leaked from within the bureau, says the director), often darkly comic, is damning. So is the prognosis for the “terrorists”, with little hope for freedom that came to a wrongfully convicted murderer in Texas in The Thin Blue Line.
Davis and Heilbroner, on a shoestring, frame the shady sting undercover images (reminiscent of Morris’s classic doc) with cutaways to deindustrialised impoverished Newburgh where residents barely have the skills to sell marijuana. It’s grim evidence, like the wild FBI footage, that any terror plot there would not be homegrown.
Production company: Qball Productions
International sales: Impact Partners, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer/screenplay: David Heilbroner
Cinematographey: Kate Davis
Editors: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner