The Camden 28



First Run Features

NEW YORK -- A timely reminder of a little-known historical event, "The Camden 28" documents the story of 28 members of the so-called "Catholic Left," including four Catholic priests and a Lutheran minister, who were put on trial on charges of breaking into a draft board office in 1971. The film is playing at New York's Cinema Village.

Considering the current political and religious climate, it's hard to believe that there even was a thing like the Catholic Left. The titular group, based in the economically depressed town of Camden, N.J., felt strongly about the essential immorality of the war in Vietnam, convinced that, among other things, it was a form of racial and social discrimination.

They thus planned to break into the local draft board office and destroy its files and documents. What they didn't realize was that they were being tracked by the FBI: Indeed, one of their participants was an undercover FBI agent who actively encouraged and helped in the scheme.

The resulting 1973 trial, which Supreme Court justice William Brennan declared "one of the great trials of the 20th century," became a political firestorm, with the defense essentially making the war the central issue. The group eventually was found not guilty because of the FBI's entrapment, representing the first legal victory for the anti-war movement.

Director Anthony Giacchino doesn't always relate the tale in the clearest fashion, but his sometimes overly emotional approach, including the use of a bombastic musical score and unnecessary footage of a 2002 reunion of the group, doesn't detract from its essential fascination. Particularly interesting are the interviews with the FBI agent who infiltrated their ranks, who has shifted his viewpoint strikingly in the intervening years.