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Delving into the shadowy hinterland of delusion, deception and paranoia that fuels UFO mythology, this tantalizing British-made documentary has just had its world premiere at the tenth annual Doc/Fest in the northern English city of Sheffield. Mirage Men features testimony from true believers, close-encounter witnesses, airline pilots and highway patrolmen. But it is chiefly concerned with a more prosaic and earthbound conspiracy, which suggests that much key UFO folklore was deliberately fabricated by U.S. military insiders to discredit extraterrestrial investigators as unhinged cranks, thus deflecting attention from their own covert projects.
Never less than engaging and generally good fun, Mirage Men touches on some accidentally topical material, including the ethics of NSA snooping and secret unmanned drone aircraft. The evergreen theme, eccentric personalities and bizarre anecdotes here are strong enough to guarantee further festival slots following the documentary’s Sheffield debut. After that, television seems to be the most obvious platform, though the juicy subject matter and high-end production values may well attract niche theatrical business.
Mirage Men is distilled from the 2010 book of the same name by the British author Mark Pilkington, who is also involved here as writer, producer and onscreen talking head. The film’s focus is narrower, concentrating on the U.S., specifically a handful of well-known figures and events in UFO circles. One pivotal player in both the book and film is Richard Doty, a former counterintelligence officer with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), who claims to have spent decades deliberately spreading disinformation about extraterrestrials: “weapons of mass deception,” as one interviewee memorably puts it. Another is ufologist and author William Moore, whose books include The Roswell Incident and The Philadelphia Experiment.
Doty and Moore initially seem plausible enough on camera, though they share a shadowy past. Both admit to feeding false information to Paul Bennewitz, a World War II veteran and electronics expert living alongside a USAF base in New Mexico. According to Doty, the NSA targeted Bennewitz in the early 1980s as a useful idiot in their black propaganda wars, beaming fake extraterrestrial messages into his house and planting bogus spaceship evidence on a nearby mountain range. Convinced he had uncovered an alien invasion plot, Bennewitz turned into a deranged version of Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, wrote warning letters to President Reagan, developed paranoid psychosis and was briefly institutionalized. Mission accomplished.
Many rich threads are woven into this colorful patchwork story: Apache folk myth, Cold War paranoia, macabre animal mutilations, top-secret stealth bombers and even an early experiment with fracking. Pilkington and his fellow directors maintain an admirably unsensational but agreeably playful tone, punctuating artfully eerie shots of the New Mexico desert with kitschy clips from vintage science-fiction thrillers.
Mirage Men takes a fascinating excursion into a twilight zone of wild conspiracies, obsessive believers and psychological double agents, even if the claims and counterclaims it stirs up never quite harden into solid investigative journalism. The open-ended finale is also disappointingly flat, leaving only the impression that USAF insider Doty is as slippery and deluded as any tinfoil-hatted UFO conspiracy nut. But Pilkington and his fellow filmmakers know their audience well. As with all paranormal myths, nobody really wants conclusive proof that little green men were fakes all along. The Truth is still out there.
Production companies: Perception Management
Producers: Roland Denning, Kypros Kyprianou, John Lundberg, Mark Pilkington
Starring: Richard Doty, William Moore, Gabriel Valdez, Robert Durant
Directors: John Lundberg, Roland Denning, Kypros Kyprianou
Writer: Mark Pilkington
Cinematographers: Zillah Bowes, Grant Wakefield
Editors: Kypros Kyprianou, Roland Denning
Music: Cyclobe, Urthona
Sales agent: Perception Management
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