When I first read about Better This World, I thought it was actually a narrative film. It tells the story of two teenage boys who are arrested for domestic terrorism after their plot to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention is thwarted. Surely, this must be fictional. But it’s a documentary, and it’s all unbelievably true. As the story unfolds, we see watch two disillusioned Texas teenagers get ground to pieces by the Homeland Security machine. It’s infuriating and horrifying and devastating, and that’s pretty much all you can ask from a documentary. I left shaking with the same indignant rage that infused me after seeing Inside Job and The Tillman Story. I realize the FBI and Homeland Security, at the basest level and politics aside, is honestly trying to stop another bombing from happening. But in those efforts, they are committing heinous crimes themselves. Using the manipulations of the legal system to pulverize two young men is reprehensible. Of course, and what makes the documentary startling and fascinating, is these kids are clearly guilty as sin. But how much culpability and how they were played by the government is sickening.
David McKay and Bradley Crowder were two teenagers growing up in Midland, Texas, pissed off with the current administration. They wanted to find a way to fight back, to make a difference. The path they chose was destructive, linking up with Brandon Darby, a revolutionary who started an organization to generate relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina survivors. Darby was redflagged by the government for his own efforts, and was offended and wanted to strike back. So he organized a radical wing of young protestors who wanted to do more than just hold signs. They knew that the government would send in strongarm strikebreakers with tear gas and rubber bullets. So they decided to create an army of their own. They manufactured riot shields out of construction pylons and duct tape. They learned self-defense techniques to defend themselves. They decided to storm the Republican National Convention in 2008 not just to protest, but to disrupt the proceedings, and they did it through any means necessary. Which involved making eight firebombs.
Crowder and McKay were thwarted because a government informant snitched on them. Crowder and McKay are guilty. This is never in question. They made firebombs with the intent to use them. While they state that their plans were mostly to firebomb empty parking lots and the giant projection screen outside the convention, they were prepared to use them against police if necessary. They were driven to make more than just a statement with placards; they wanted to be actively destructive in fighting against a regime they felt were destroying the very country they loved. But they weren’t alone. And the very man who turned them in was the man who was so actively attempting to churn them to a frothy rage: Brandon Darby.
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega follow the boys through their incarceration and the legal battles they must wage. It becomes a case of whether the U.S. government used entrapment and manipulation to drive two boys into becoming domestic terrorists. It’s a solid piece of journalism, because while there is never any doubt as to the guilt of the two boys, there’s plenty of doubt on their culpability. Better This World elicits complex feelings. Nobody wants another horrific tragedy, nobody wants to see homegrown terrorists take out innocent people to make their statements. And yet, when the government seems to be the very ones providing the fertilizer to grow the terrorists in order to profit from their reaping, who is really at fault? The government seems to be building up “The Texas Two” in order to make them into monsters so they can justify the Patriot Act and manufacture successes to defend their budgetary measures. It’s hard not to be cynical when the government is making up enemies in order to soundly defeat them to bolster stats in the win column.
Better This World comes from Brandon Darby’s statements, claiming the reason he turned on his friends was because he wanted to make the world a better place. The very man who professes that he would do whatever it takes, that he wouldn’t let the two boys get involved unless they were willing to do anything, turns around and suddenly becomes a fervent patriot. The two friends are almost unwavering in their acceptance of wrongdoing and their commitment to each other, and the U.S. Attorney’s office tries to twist that bond into a noose around their necks. You’ll be pulled in so many directions by the end — rooting for the guilty, questioning the governments efforts, worrying about your own protections. It makes for a poignantly effective experience.
Better This World premiered at the SXSW 2011 Film Festival.