One of the best political documentaries last year, "Better This World" examines the government's crackdowns on civil disobedience, the ubiquity of surveillance and the injustice of our justice system. One of the most compelling characters in that taut, tense story of two boyhood friends who go from political neophytes to would-be domestic terrorists, accused of planning violent acts at the 2008 G.O.P. Convention, was Brandon Darby, the anarchist activist turned F.B.I. informant who may have helped instigate the very crimes the young men were convicted of. In a worthy quasi-sequel to "Better this World," Jamie Meltzer's "Informant"--which screens today at DOC NYC--presents the story from Darby's perspective, offering his own personal, paranoid justifications for his actions.
A kind of "Fog of War" for the age of Occupy, Meltzer lets Darby tell his own story and reveal his own inadvertent weaknesses. While other interviewees--those who knew Darby, from long-time fellow activists to "Better this World's" David McKay--counter Darby's narrative, it is Darby who emerges as his own complex unreliable narrator, a tough, self-righteous man bent on saving the world who doesn't appear to know how to save himself.
It's a testament to the film that Darby doesn't seem all that bad. He just seems confused (and utterly paranoid, with at least two guns in his home), seeking to rationalize his move from anti-government activist to goverment stool pigeon. But "Informant" also leaves a lot out: Darby experiences a major traumatic shift, in which his F.B.I. handler appears to have given him solace and comfort, which no one else--not even his most trusted friends--could provide. But how did this happen? And why? I'm not sure about giving easy psychological answers to such questions, but one wonders more about Darby's family life, particularly his relationship with his father. Forgive the pop-Freudian analysis, but Darby seems to have found in the F.B.I. the father figure that he long sought to reject. And in his acceptance by Tea Party activists, Darby finally found a welcoming home, with a strong patriarchal framework.
But he also looks totally out of place among those white, old-fashioned conservatives; smiling alongside Andrew Breitbart, Darby looks like a shell of his former self. One gets the sense that he is somehow a broken man, living a lie of his own making in order to get through the day.