In Plane Sight

12 mins read

’s fitting that the feature documentary’s rise in profile has coincided with an era of unprecedented information control. What’s unfortunate is how often the films misinterpret control as concealment. For most of the stories that need to be told these days, it isn’t secrecy that’s the problem, but distraction—and reading secrecy over this enforced ignorance only clouds the issue further. Fahrenheit 9/11‘s trumpeted “unearthing”of documents implicating the Bush family lawyer in Saudi oil deals, The Corporation’s lengthy recreation of a stealthy, all-pervasive marketing network dogging the steps of unwitting citizens, and Control Room’s spurious speculations of imported celebrants at the Baghdad statue-toppling are facile departures from the real content the films have to offer. These pointless MacGuffins can mislead even the canniest of filmmakers; witness, for instance, the feature-length bamboozling that is The Fog of War. Who needs these ineffectual “revelations”? Why bother with secrets when truths are right under your nose?

The answer, of course, is that secrets sell. Conspiracy is a far more attractive package than musty facts, and even those films which do an exemplary job on facts can find it hard to resist the lure of the shady and mysterious. The added layer of mystification may help with marketability, but the selling comes with an implicit buy-in. The secrecy come-on isolates rather than uncovers, favours the telling over the story itself. Government, corporate and media obscurantism doesn’t need to be made more obscure. It may be the ironic legacy of the wide-audience documentary that, in their varying ways, they help to maintain the very fictions they set out to dispel.

Perhaps the most valuable service provided by the features’ success and controversy has been the trickle-down effect they’ve had on more traditional documentary formats, not only providing a profile boost but also illuminating some of the basic assumptions they share with their more modest brethren. In September, Nova’s two-hour special The Battle of the X-Planes, made by the Alberta-based production company Myth Merchant Films, took home an Emmy for long form news coverage. Recounting the heated competition between aerospace giants Lockheed-Martin and Boeing to produce the most advanced and versatile jet fighter ever built—one that will most likely be the last manned fighter ever commissioned by the American military—and to secure the largest contract (upwards of $200 billion) ever awarded by the Department of Defense (DoD), the film is strong, if familiarly told, television documentary fare.

The award, however, and X-Planes’ tremendous broadcast popularity, certainly has a great deal to do with the unprecedented access granted director Michael Jorgensen, a former CBC cameraman and now prolific documentary filmmaker, by the two competitors and the directors of the DoD’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program. Jorgensen’s camera is present at every stage of the two-year process, gaining admittance to Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works and rival Boeing’s even more ominously named Phantom Works, as well as the halls of an “undisclosed location near the Pentagon” where cameras have previously never been permitted.

It is all rather fascinating, even for those viewers (this writer included) who don’t much care for the culture of techno-worship, which the film is steeped in, and the production details—including the arrest and interrogation of the film’s associate producer and sound recordist as they were photographing a gigantic C-5 Galaxy military transport—only supplement the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. “One of the (aerospace) executives told me, ‘If you mess this up, they’re gonna find your bones in the desert one day,’” says Jorgensen. “I hoped he was kidding, but I got the sense that he wasn’t.”

What’s truly remarkable, however, about the “classified world of the X-planes” (as the film grandly calls it), is how easy it was to access. Tipped off to the fighter competition by an uncle who worked at the Boeing plant, Jorgensen went directly to Rear-Admiral Craig Steadle, then-head of the JSF Program: “I explained my idea for the film, and just told him that I thought it would be in his best interests (to allow the doc to be made).” Steadle readily agreed, and smoothed the way with the rival firms, who worked out an agreement with Jorgensen whereby all footage shot at their facilities would be remanded to security personnel, who would store it until Jorgensen transferred the footage to a steel vault in Edmonton.

Fears of corporate espionage aside, Jorgensen was right on the money in his pitch to Steadle. Revealing government secrets is in the government’s best interests, because it allows them to set the terms of disclosure. “Unprecedented” is simply a readjustment of precedents. To get the facts to fit the framework, Jorgensen had to adhere, to a certain but crucial degree, to some of the fictions of his subject. Setting the context of the competition reveals how decontextualized the world of the X-Planes is from the geopolitical (sur)realities it is created to serve. The familiar line of armchair military rhetoric, combining vaunted technological prowess and the pretend archaism (“the most important weapon in America’s arsenal is based on ideas almost a half-century old,” the narrator cautions) which keeps the billions rolling in to fund that prowess, is accepted more or less unquestioningly. It can be a little disquieting to hear such dubious contentions as “aging fighters and shrinking budgets threaten to undermine (the U.S.’s) control of the skies” dropped as blithe fact.

Jorgensen, who evinces the genial anti-Bushism of a good Canadian liberal, certainly isn’t unaware of the implications of these contentions, or the assumptions on which they’re based: “I think there’s a whole other film to be made on the kind of sheltered world in which these guys live.” “Secrecy” aside, The Battle of the X-Planes is no exposé: its strengths are uniquely connected to its limits. What the film is allowed to see is complemented by what it is not allowed to see; indeed, what is not seen only adds to the mystique of that which is. Meanwhile, there’s a larger story drifting on the fringes of the X-Plane competition, in the declassified world of cause and consequence.

Jorgensen is absolutely correct when he asserts that that story is another film—in fact, he’s made it. Lost Nuke, which recently aired on the Discovery Channel, recreates the story of the U.S. government’s first “broken arrow” incident, the crash of the atomic bomb-carrying B-36 bomber 075 while on a trial run in the mountains of British Columbia in 1950. The come-on is reversed here. Where X-Planes gets a charge from its access to the classified world, Lost Nuke just as ably exploits its barring: a member of the three-man investigative team darkly speculates about the “deep, dark secret” behind the military’s stonewalling of the incident. These decades-old matters seem to touch a nerve that went unaffected during the DoD’s willing exposure of the weapons nominally designed to be “the first strike in the War on Terror.” On being informed of the subject of Lost Nuke, many of the same military and government contacts who had eagerly aided Jorgensen on X-Planes reacted with opprobrium. Jorgensen eventually discovered that he had been placed on the Pentagon’s official unofficial blacklist.

Apparently, it’s not merely the jet fighter that’s based on ideas a half-century old. Lost Nuke’s ominous rumblings about hidden conspiracies is nowhere near as interesting as its tracings of the systemic source of those conspiracies, a continuing story in which X-Planes is only a chapter: the rapidity with which the most advanced technology is made obsolete, the bulk of it never even utilized in combat; the enormous cost in money and manpower racked up by the arms race; and the astonishing neglect of safety in the name of official “secrecy,” a secrecy which most often amounts to not owning up to matters of public record. The most startling “revelation,” in fact, is the film’s passing mention of a known quantity: that over three decades the military has lost over sixty nuclear weapons in major accidents around the globe.

Such on-the-record details trump all the adolescent glee underlying X-Planes’ supposed gravitas (“That was awesome!” enthuses Lockheed chief engineer Rick Rezabek as he sees his life-size toy make its first landing). Granting access doesn’t mean granting knowledge, and telling stories doesn’t mean losing sight of a larger narrative. As Jorgensen’s blacklisting demonstrates, the unassuming television documentary can be just as revealing, and just as damning, as its big-screen, publicity-baiting kin—and evidently, “top secrets” have nothing on simple, documented fact.

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