Although undeniably slanted in its perspective and intentions, The Newburgh Sting is a gray-area documentary. It’s not a good-looking film by any means, but that’s not the reason that it’s a perfect feature for television. No matter your screen size at home, it’s still going to look like a cheap video production. But it’s living room fodder, meaning it’s a real discussion starter. Don’t be surprised if you constantly press pause in order to talk about the issues step by step with whomever you’re watching with. Or to take a moment to think it over to yourself, if you’re watching alone. This a documentary about issues that are complex enough that the angle taken here is hardly a problem for an intelligent audience.
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (the team behind similarly functional, non-cinematic docs like Waiting for Armageddon, Stonewall Uprising and The Cheshire Murders, which had almost the same HBO debut date as this one last summer), The Newburgh Sting revisits a 2009 plot involving four men aiming to blow up two Bronx synagogues and shoot down military planes at an airport in their hometown of Newburgh, New York. At the time, the media took the bait of federal and local authorities and ran the story as a major bust of Islamic extremist terrorists set on enacting the next 9/11 in the name of Al Qaeda. The documentary aims to set it straight by showing how the whole incident was actually a case of FBI entrapment.
The filmmakers seem convinced, as do the majority of those they interview for the doc, including defense lawyers and the families of the men. They want us to see baby pictures of the would-be bombers and hear about how they’re all victims, a bunch of regular guys exploited for the fact that they were poor and black and, most unfortunately, kinda dumb. One of them, we’re told, was just in it for the money promised to him because he wanted to pay his cancer-stricken brother’s hospital bills. And the main thing stressed in the film is that the money, as well as the idea, was coming from a man who turned out to be an FBI informant. Without him, these guys would have allegedly continued being normal schmoes.
The fact is, of course, that no matter the motivation, these guys were going to go through with criminal acts, easily labeled as terrorism by involving interstate travel, destruction of government property and religious hatred. The fact also is, of course, that these guys were provided targets, funding, weapons and other aspects of their plot by the very authorities who were out fishing for some patsies to parade in front of the public. Debates on entrapment, precrime, racial and religious profiling and what constitutes terrorism are immediately at play with a story like this. As the doc goes on, issues with security, fear, the image of America’s law enforcement agencies and more enter into the conversation.
At the start of The Newburgh Sting we’re told that much of the material we’re seeing in the film is never-before-seen footage. That selling point doesn’t really matter, because most of the viewers won’t have sought out content like it anyway. The significance, whether it’s available on YouTube or just recently released from a vault is that it’s a more detailed account of the story than the nightly news offers. And much of it is surveillance video recorded by the informant and the FBI, so that’s appealing on its own. Like many docs dependent on this sort of footage, however, it’s always going to seem deficient since there’s always a lot more that we’re not seeing. It’s up to us to determine if what we are given is enough to spark a dialogue, not whether it’s enough for us to convict or acquit.
Some have complained that what’s cut out are the facts about James Cromitie, the ringleader first recruited by the informant. But contrary to those criticisms, The Newburgh Sting does include sufficient indication that he was the most bent on committing jihad. He talks about hating Jewish people as well as how he hopes to do well enough on this mission to get more assignments, although even those comments have been claimed as mere show. It’s the three men he brought on board who are depicted as more innocent — or at least more naive. And while it’s believable that they were exploited, there does appear to be some pieces of the puzzle missing. Maybe they weren’t interested in killing people or doing anything in the name of Allah, but there are black spots in the narrative regarding why they’re otherwise on board for obvious criminal activity.
This isn’t a documentary about the wrongfully arrested. It is instead a protest of the system that allowed those arrests as well as an inquiry into the definition of terrorism today as it brings to men like these a mandatory minimum sentence. We’ve seen other docs that ask the same primary question, although those films, namely If a Tree Falls and Better This World (and its unofficial companion film, Informant), deal with cases of domestic activism that seem but aren’t totally different from a plot against a couple houses of worship and planes used for wartime purposes. There is a line, but it’s thin and enough of one that The Newburgh Sting is worth viewing in addition to those higher quality features.
The Newburgh Sting is now showing on HBO and available on demand and to stream via HBO GO.