Informant: Film Review

Second excellent Brandon Darby-related doc complements 2011's Better this World.

Jamie Meltzer's doc is an in-depth portrait of Brandon Darby that both complements the earlier film "Better this World," and is engrossing on its own.

NEW YORK — Last year's festival standout doc Better this World (broadcast on PBS's POV) told the story of two young idealists, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, whose plans for non-violent protest at 2008's Republican National Convention went awry: They wound up being charged with domestic terrorism, an outcome many blame on undercover FBI informant Brandon Darby, whose alpha-male anarchist posturing goaded them into contemplating the use of Molotov cocktails.

Now comes Jamie Meltzer's excellent Informant, an in-depth portrait of Darby that both complements the earlier film and is engrossing on its own. Activist groups of all stripes will want to see it, but the force of Darby's personality -- a rich stew of righteousness, arrogance and self-delusion -- gives the doc a psychological appeal independent of politics. The Grand Jury Prize winner in DOC NYC's Viewfinders competition, it deserves a theatrical run.

We meet Darby at home, on his own terms: As he stands to speak into the camera, halting to restart an account of the "direct death threats" he has received since being exposed, viewers may suspect they're in for an apologia -- that Meltzer thinks Darby is unfairly maligned by the radical Left. In fact, the filmmaker is willing to let Darby have all the time he wants onscreen -- but most viewers will come away feeling he has taken all that film and fashioned his own noose.

What makes Darby's story so compelling, and makes his work with the FBI so surprising, is who he was when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Already politically-minded with an anarchist bent, the Texan drove to New Orleans hoping to find a friend stuck there. He recalls a standoff with Army Rangers who tried to stop his rescue attempt, the first of many experiences that lead him to say "if I'd had an appropriate weapon, I would have attacked my government for what they were doing" in New Orleans. (That's far from the most reckless-sounding thing he says here.)

Instead he helped launch Common Ground Relief, an action-oriented nonprofit whose effectiveness at delivering food, water, and medical help eventually earned the group (and Darby) the respect of the people they were criticizing -- like the police chief Darby would later call for advice when he believed he was being approached to help fund a Palestinian terrorist organization. That contact would eventually lead this radical to work for the FBI, in a chain of events that Darby tries to explain.

Common Ground cofounder Scott Crow, and many others who knew and worked with Darby, have their own interpretation of those events and their own theories about what motivated his remarkable conversion. Their insights into his personality dovetail with interviews with journalists who covered the prosecution of Crowder and McKay. Together with footage in which Darby reenacts his own account of events -- and audio interviews with McKay himself -- viewers are well equipped to decide what version of this strange tale makes the most sense.

Production Companies: The Informant Documentary LLC, Lucky Hat Entertainment, Filament Productions
Director: Jamie Meltzer
Producers: George M. Rush, Stephen Bannatyne
Executive producer: Adam Spielberg
Director of photography: Frazer Bradshaw
Music: T. Griffin
Editors: John Kane, Jamie Meltzer, Summers Henderson
No rating, 81 minutes.