Just `Cause

"The dog ate the part we didn't like"
-- from Panama, by Thomas McGuane

You probably don't have to hate George Bush or his presidential predecessor, Ronald Reagan, to appreciate The Panama Deception (opening Friday at the Alliance on Lincoln Road), this year's Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature. But it helps.

In November 1988, Hunter S. Thompson, drug-snarfing gonzo journalist and acclaimed political analyst, called Bush "the guiltiest man in America," in front of a rapt Miami Book Fair audience. The peripatetic, sporadically lucid author was alluding to the president-elect's record as CIA director under Gerald Ford and second banana under the Dutchman during the Iran-contra scandal. Thompson warned of the dangers inherent in playing up the "Wimp Factor," perceived by many to be Bush's biggest character flaw. Call the man a milquetoast, Thompson cautioned, and you risked macho overkill the first time the rancorous preppie got the opportunity to prove his manhood.

One year later, Thompson's prophecy came true. On December 20, 1989, 26,000 American troops, backed by Stealth bombers, swarms of helicopter gunships, and heavy artillery, launched a three-day invasion of Panama. Bush's official pretext for the assault varied, ranging from the traditional standby (to protect American lives), to the preferred rationalization of recent Republican administrations (liberation from an evil dictator). But, as the documentary is quick to point out, the truth probably lay closer to Thompson's fear. "It was denial of the Wimp Factor in spades," comments retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information in the film.

Watching Bush's pathetic attempts to justify his roundly condemned (by the rest of the world, at least A the U.N. voted 75-20 to declare the undertaking a "flagrant violation of international law") military takeover would be the stuff of high comedy if it weren't for the massive loss of life and property damage resulting from Poppy's little strut. Anyone who still doesn't acknowledge the irrefutable link between show business and politics should be forced to watch the old Skull and Bones man screwing his face into a mask of righteous indignation at the alleged sexual assault of a serviceman's wife at the hands of Noriega's evil henchmen.

"If they kill an American Marine, that's real bad," intones the president solemnly, in his best Gary Cooper imitation, "and if they threaten and brutalize the wife of an American citizen, sexually threatening the lieutenant's wife while kicking him in the groin over and over again, this president is gonna do something about it!"

It was a skillful performance that should have done Bush's thespian-cum-president mentor proud. Never mind that the Marine was killed during an exchange of gunfire while attempting to run a Panamanian military roadblock in front of Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters. Or that he was a member of a group known as the "Hard Chargers," whose mission was to provoke confrontations with the Panamanians. George Bush wanted an international incident, and he got one.

The Panama Deception is a scathing polemic that makes no pretense toward objectivity. Producer-director Barbara Trent has been a thorn in Bush's side since her previous documentary, COVERUP: Behind the Iran Contra Affair, exposed his involvement in that sordid episode and accused him of conspiring with the Iranians to delay the release of the American hostages from Tehran prior to the Reagan landslide election victory in 1980. Elizabeth Montgomery's narration takes some of the edge off of Trent's bias (after all, everyone knows Samantha Stephens, a woman who sublimated superhuman powers to make her husband, Darrin, happy, wouldn't get involved in something political unless she was really, really mad). Deception is a meticulous, thoroughly researched and masterfully edited rebuttal to official U.S. claims of moral justification, quick victory, minimal civilian casualties, limited property damage, reduced narco-trafficking and money-laundering, and restoration of democracy in Panama. The film, as tough, provocative, and compelling as any nonfiction production in recent memory, was a worthy Oscar-winner if for no other reason than that it does the unthinkable -- it actually makes one feel sympathy for Manuel Noriega.

Many of the images A shots of densely populated neighborhoods in Panama City coming under heavy artillery fire in the middle of the night, the barely recognizable bodies of entire families mangled and twisted in the wreckage of cars first shelled and then crushed like beer cans by U.S. tanks, badly decomposed bodies being exhumed from mass graves A need little embellishment to make their point. Others succeed because of canny editing. Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams denies U.S. soldiers systematically burned the El Chorrillo neighborhood to the ground ("You get fires that are started by weapons...") in order to root out hiding PDF members; Trent cuts to eyewitness accounts minutely detailing the soldiers' methods and footage of entire blocks in flames.

Trent's case is a strong one, and her accusations far-reaching. Was the mainstream news media (Rather, Brokaw, Donaldson, et al., are mercilessly lampooned for their wide-eyed acceptance of the party line throughout) part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth about the invasion, or were they just incredibly gullible? Did the CIA plot the death of Noriega's predecessor, Gen. Omar Torrijos? Was the Pentagon so hot to try out new toys like Stealth bombers that potential civilian casualties were never a factor? How many civilian casualties were there? (Official U.S. estimates run into the low hundreds; U.N. and human rights monitoring groups say the true total is ten times that amount.) Why did Bush, who, as CIA director under Ford and VP under Reagan, actively wooed Noriega after the Carter administration cut him off, suddenly turn against his old buddy? Did U.S. troops willfully execute civilians and PDF captives? And, ultimately, was the whole thing really just a thinly veiled attempt to suppress Panamanian independence, a dry run for Operation Desert Storm, or was it even less A one weak man's effort to prove his masculinity at any cost?

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