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By Matthew Sorrento | July 1, 2007

As the American campaign in Iraq continues, we have all the more proof that we haven’t learned from history. But in the thick of such a mess, all we can do is look back in time for answers – or at least, for inspiration. “The Camden 28,” a documentary about one group’s resistance to the Vietnam draft, celebrates a duty to responsibility, even if the duty defies the federal law.

The resistance came in the form of destroying draft documentation – but we’re not talking the burning of single cards in a hippy vigil. In 1971, this group of citizens embarked on a long-term stakeout to infiltrate a drafting office in a Camden, New Jersey federal building to destroy all the files therein. They hoped to halt the draft process for many, and in turn send a message that the American war machine can be impeded if attacked at the ground level.

The city of Camden was a suitable locale for the protest. Already angered by the casualties and the war’s motivation – fighting the Communistic threat where it may not have even existed – the “28” was all the more concerned that the Army was recruiting poor urban males from challenged cities such as Camden (a practice inherited by the Iraq campaign). Once a productive city of factories, Camden and its economy had fallen by the early 1970s, and the city experienced severe race riots prior to the “28’s” 1971 protest. The “28” saw a national crisis as also a local one, as Camden’s already oppressed youths were taken away to die in a foreign land. It was a city that needed rejuvenation funds, not the loss of its young workforce. The “28’s” drastic actions may seem like those of fervent, politically awakened college kids – but while the “28” had its share of budding hippies, it mostly consisted of mature activists, a number of them clergymen of the Catholic “Left” (a group easily forgotten in today’s Christian-Conservative climate).

Director Anthony Giacchino realizes what an engaging tale he’s uncovered, and stays back to let the members tell their story. As they bear witness in contemporary interviews, their experiences possess a time-worn wisdom, since the “28’s” standoff is as relevant now as ever. However, after an engaging introduction to the “28,” the film’s pace dulls for a spell when the talking-head interviews grow dull and cannot liven the structure with intercut still footage. Things pick up, however, when we realize this is more than an historical cinematic essay, but also a narrative about the group’s unexpected confrontation. When the “28” broke into the federal building, with the help of numerous watchmen and prior stakeouts, the FBI appeared for a timely arrest, which left Father Michael Dolan and other members positive that their operation had been breached by one of their own.

The revelation of the guilty party is all the more engaging since we have been familiarized with many members. The story goes beyond the revelation to other legal developments that landed the “Camden 28” in an extended trial. As the events unravel, the FBI joins the Johnson administration and the US military as another target of the “28’s” story. While their efforts are ready-made for an engrossing tale, Giacchino recovers a pace well suited for “the 28’s” glory.

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