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No Control Documentary Review Essay

Craig Atkinson’s documentary about police militarization, Do Not Resist, is filled with unsettling scenes like the one where a Swat team destroys a family’s home during a drug raid that nets small amounts of loose marijuana. But the most disturbing scene transpires during the relative placidity of a seminar when a hugely successful lecturer tells a room full of police officers: “We are at war and you are the frontline.

“What do you fight violence with? Superior violence. Righteous violence. Violence is your tool … You are men and women of violence.”

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The speaker, Dave Grossman, is a retired army lieutenant colonel with a packed national speaking schedule. In the film, Grossman also promulgates the notion that one perk of violent encounters is that police often say that afterwards they have the best sex of their lives, which Atkinson, in an interview, sees as parallel to promising virgins to a suicide bomber.

“I wanted to show how ubiquitous his philosophy is and how it has been adopted throughout law enforcement,” says Atkinson, whose movie won best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens in New York on Friday and then gradually rolls out. (Grossman refused to be interviewed for this story.) “I don’t think they should be incentivizing law enforcement to commit violence. This is a rape and pillage philosophy versus a protect and serve philosophy.”

Justin Hansford, an assistant professor at St Louis University school of law, says this mentality has long existed but that the 9/11 attacks created a new level of fear among citizens and police and timidity among the politicians who should be preventing this escalation. “It’s a jambalaya of all the wrong ingredients,” he says.

The seemingly endless police killings – from Ferguson to Tulsa and Charlotte – are directly linked to this issue, Hansford and Atkinson say.

“When so many people are being killed you need to look at why so many people in law enforcement are imbued with fear and are trigger happy,” Atkinson says. “I would love to open the debate of how we’re training our officers.”

Peter Kraska, the chair at the Eastern Kentucky University’s school of justice studies says this mindset has hardened in many police departments. “There has been a major shift so the culture of policing is now split and there is a huge component acting in an irrational manner and viewing themselves in this more militaristic way.”

Atkinson started making the film because he felt the hunt for the Boston marathon bombers was chaotic and heavy-handed in its use of military equipment but his interest started closer to home. His father was an officer in a city near Detroit and a longtime Swat team member and Atkinson was shocked to learn how the Swat mission had gradually changed.

Swat deployments are also occurring at a greater rate than ever. Atkinson’s film cites statistics: in 1980 there were 3,000 Swat deployments but by 2005 that number had climbed to 45,000. Estimates place current annual numbers between 50,000 and 80,000.

Much of that growth stems from a distorted twist on the famous Field of Dreams quotation: if you arm them they will raid. The federal government has been mindlessly handing over everything from bayonets to armored vehicles to police departments, inadvertently creating what may feel like an occupying military force: since 1997, the Pentagon’s surplus giveaways have been worth more than $4bn, while the Department of Homeland Security has provided millions more in grants.

“I’m not against the hardware,” Atkinson says and Hansford echoes the belief that Swat teams and armored vehicles are necessary for the rare instances of acts of terrorism. However, that’s not how they’re used.

“Eighty percent of Swat teams’ missions are now for minor offenses, usually drugs, and nothing to do with their vital and original function,” says Pete Kraska, the chair of graduate studies and research in the school of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

“There’s mission creep,” Kraska says, adding that using machine guns for civilian protest or raiding people’s homes at 4am over minor, non-violent activities “is manufacturing dangerous situations”.

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Hansford says this “complete overkill” is especially galling because “Swat teams are targeting black and brown communities” and do not go into white areas plagued by heroin epidemics with the same aggressive tactics.

In the film, Swat teams revel in the adrenaline rush of military-style training with heavy weaponry and armored vehicles and one officer justifies it all by citing the need to be ready for Isis, WMDs and “a situation like what they had in Missouri” saying that civil protests warranted tanks and machine guns.

Atkinson’s movie takes viewers to places they probably never think much about. “We kept restricting ourselves to what we could actually show,” he says.

There was plenty to show, such as the public meetings in Concord, New Hampshire, about whether to accept a grant worth more than $250,000 for an armored vehicle. A retired colonel who served in Falluja testifies that this is wholly unnecessary while another veteran says it would make Concord live less free. The local council, however, votes 11-4 to bring it on.

In South Carolina, Atkinson shows a crew that badly damages a home where all they find is some loose weed at the bottom of a bookbag. They arrest the man and then confiscate $1,000 he had for buying landscaping equipment for work. An officer tells the family “it was an extractionary technique and we felt we needed to do it”, and says with a shrug to the camera that drug raids are a 50-50 proposition in terms of finding something worthwhile.

Atkinson shows that particular raid because he wanted to show how civil asset forfeiture (where the police confiscate goods and money for their own use before a person is even found guilty) has spiraled out of control but adds that he went out on a half-dozen raids around the country and the police never found anything worthwhile. “Do you know the type of ill will generated in these communities?” he says. “It makes the police seem like an occupying force.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, strongly disagrees, saying the genuine risks of terrorism or heavily armed drug dealers justify the behavior. He says seeing something sinister in militarization is “patently absurd” and says liberals, but especially libertarians, simply “don’t believe in police and think it’s all Jim Crow, it’s all abuse. They are a danger to society and are getting black people killed because police are afraid to get out of their cars.”

O’Donnell acknowledges the excess and overreach of what he calls “penny ante raids” and says they should be “reined in” but points out that drugs are still illegal and argues that going in with overwhelming force can be safer for everyone.

That viewpoint is taken up in the movie by the FBI director, James Comey, who gives a speech that uses Trump-like phrasing to dismiss legitimate concerns, when he talks about “so-called warrior cops, a term I have heard, and the militarization of police”. He then proclaims “monsters are real” and justifies the need for these weapons. The editing is a bit selective: the clip ends before Comey acknowledges that “the issue is the way in which we use it – when and how we deploy advanced equipment; when and how our officers are trained to use that equipment. The way we do it matters enormously.” But Comey, like many defenders of militarization against an armed citizenry, does not speak out for stronger gun control to reduce the need for such equipment and attitudes.

Do Not Resist shifts gears in the last 15 minutes to look at the explosive growth in police use of technology, from cameras in public spaces to facial recognition software to social media analysis. At first glance this seems far less problematic, especially since cameras helped lead to the speedy arrest of the alleged terrorist in the recent New York City bombing. But Hansford argues these surveillance tactics can be just as insidious. “The truth is not used for justice equally, it is used for power and control,” he says. “It feels like a less direct threat because it is less visceral but there is a real danger of a slippery slope where the technology will be used for minor infractions and not enforced equally.”

Kraska is pessimistic about possible change, pointing out that departments can ramp up under the guise of community policing by saying they need armored vehicles and Swat teams “to create a climate of order for the community. But that really is the model of an occupying force”.

Atkinson, who hopes that police academies would screen his film as part of training, counters that he has met officers “who are moving away from the Dave Grossman philosophy, realizing it’s actually more dangerous for them and that de-escalation makes officers’ lives safer”. He believes these officers are looking for ways to get back to that old police motto, “to protect and serve”.

Scheduled to blast off April 14 into theatrical and digital orbits, “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” likely will be referred to by some wags as “Not-So-Hidden Figures,” given its focus on the mostly white and entirely male teams of mission controllers and support crews that were frequently visible (on TV and in newsreels) yet largely anonymous during the early days of the U.S. manned-spaceflight program. But the recent box office success of director Theodore Melfi’s compelling drama about contributions by African-American women to the space program may boost mainstream interest in this celebratory documentary, which enthralls with a more traditional but equally absorbing stories-behind-the-story narrative.

The film is a worthy follow-up by producers Keith Haviland and Gareth Dodds to “The Last Man on the Moon,” their exceptional 2014 biographical portrait of Gene Cernan, who flew three times in space and twice to the moon during his storied career as a Gemini and Apollo astronaut.  Cernan — who passed away last January — figures into the list of interviewees here, as do fellow moonwalker Charlie Duke and two veterans of the Apollo 13 mission, NASA flight director Gene Kranz and astronaut James Lovell (who were memorably played by Ed Harris and Tom Hanks, respectively, in Ron Howard’s 1995 “Apollo 13”).

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But director David Fairhead (who served as editor for “Last Man on the Moon”) devotes appreciably more screen time to the recollections of many lesser-known interviewees who were employed at NASA’s mission control center in Houston for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s.  This disparate group — recruits ranging from recent college grads to seasoned military personnel at the time of their hiring — includes such engaging storytellers as Ed Fendell, who cheerfully admits he majored in drinking and skirt-chasing in college prior to signing on as an Instrumentation and Communications Officer; Steve Bales, who worked his way up from tour guide to guidance officer at the Houston space center; and flight controller John Aaron, who earned his spurs while making tough, split-second decisions during the Apollo 12 and 13 missions, but who admits that, after his grueling experiences, he could never again look to the heavens with any sense of romanticized awe. “It’s a different moon to me now,” he says.

Fairhead draws heavily on the testimonies of these and other NASA veterans — including Kranz, Lovell and Dr. Chris Kraft, the flight controller credited with inventing the concept of a mission-control center — during the documentary’s dramatic high points, which include episodes devoted to the tragedy of Apollo 1, the triumph of Apollo 11 (the first manned moon landing), and the near-disaster of Apollo 13.

The film makes a strong case for blaming the Apollo 1 fiasco (which led to the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test) on a perfect storm of rash decisions, poor design, and lax safety measures; nevertheless, some NASA vets grudging admit that the catastrophe led to improvements that probably prevented potentially greater disasters.

“Mission Control” covers ground already trod by countless earlier features and documentaries while recounting the Apollo 11 and 13 missions. Here, too, however, the film benefits greatly from its ability to review events from the viewpoints of the men on the ground in Houston. Indeed, Fairhead even manages to generate a surprising degree of suspense with behind-the-scenes details. For example: Bales nearly aborted the Apollo 11 lunar landing — twice — because of technical difficulties.

And once again, we’re reminded that, when things went wrong during Apollo 13, what Lovell actually said was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Not “Houston, we have a problem.” Just like Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”

“Mission Control” also deals head-on with a defining characteristic of NASA mission controllers and support crews that, decades later, seems almost comical to contemporary viewers of archival footage: Most of these guys smoked. A lot. And when things got tense, as they most certainly did during the scramble to improvise a safe return for the Apollo 13 astronauts, the tobacco usage amped exponentially. One interviewee notes, only half-jokingly, that anytime anyone opened the door to mission control, they found themselves wading through a dense, nicotine-laced fog. Which, by the way, is not the sort of thing Walter Cronkite ever told viewers about back in the day.

Film Review: 'Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 18, 2017. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Gravitas Ventures release of a Haviland Digital production. Producers: Keith Haviland, Gareth Dodds.

Crew: Director, editor: David Fairhead. Screenplay: Fairhead, Keith Haviland. Cinematography (color, B&W): Ian Salvage.

With: Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney, Gerry Griffin, John Aaron, Ed Fendell, Jerry Bostick, Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Steve Bales.

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