(T)error is an extremely difficult film to describe, if only because it raises a concern that doesn’t frequently arise in the work of a documentary critic. It’s that rare nonfiction feature with a significant twist, a narrative surprise that changes everything. This is no Catfish-style final act revelation, either. There’s a turn that happens right at the midway point of the film, a shift in perspective that elevates the achievement of directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe to a rarely seen height of journalistic bravery.
(T)error begins as a profile of an FBI informant on assignment in Pittsburgh. His name is Saeed Torres and his mission is to lure a local Muslim named Khalifah al-Akili into planning or attempting to commit terrorist acts, so that the FBI can then arrest him and lock him up. The philosophical line between solid work and entrapment may be a blurry one but the legal line is theoretically very strict, so Torres’s job is not easy. He’s also sick of the way that the Bureau has yanked him around in the past and is thus more than willing to let Cabral and Sutcliffe follow him around with a camera, even into his Pittsburgh safe house.
As his work moves forward, slowly and often unsurely, the filmmakers make time for lengthy trips back into his past. He was involved with the Black Panthers in the 1970s, only becoming an informant years later after a run-in with the law. He’s already alienated the congregation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant mosque he once attended as the result of a prior sting operation in New York. Now he’s all alone in Pittsburgh, embittered and waiting for one last payday. It’s initially hard to tell exactly how Cabral and Sutcliffe feel about him, using occasionally dramatic spy-movie music to evoke an FBI operation much more exciting and competent than the one sitting in front of them.
At first this excitable style seems to mock Torres and his haphazard sting operation, his lack of professionalism exacerbated by the fact that the FBI won’t even give him a computer class, let alone any actual training. After the midpoint shift, when there are suddenly more moving pieces than before, this strategy becomes a lot more interesting. (T)error is interested in a landscape of entrapment and abuse of power that stretches well beyond the bounds of Torres’s own case history. As that becomes clearer, the stylistic and structural choices begin to hit home.
At the end of the day, the triumph here is twofold. The first achievement is one of journalistic bravery, the exposure of the FBI’s pursuit of suspected terrorists with little regard for either constitutional fairness or basic common sense. The second piece is more complicated. (T)error, with its slightly hokey evocation of spy movie tropes, wryly critiques what the bureau thinks it’s up to just as it exposes what it’s actually doing. In this way it’s both similar to Citizenfour and its exact opposite, sharing its groundbreaking approach to the role of the documentarian as journalist while diverging in its thematic and stylistic goals. Each film is necessary, each turning an individual investigative accomplishment into a larger artistic representation of the decaying state of American law and justice.
This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, 2015.