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Docurama presents
The Panama Deception (1992)

"We'd like to see him out of there."
- President George Bush, on Manuel Noriega's tenure as leader of Panama

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: October 08, 2007

Stars: Manuel Noriega, George Bush
Director: Barbara Trent

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:30m:56s
Release Date: September 25, 2007
UPC: 767685987131
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Though this documentary was made fifteen years ago about events that occurred three years before that, it's pretty much impossible to view it from our vantage point and not to read it as a dress rehearsal or dry run for the current protracted military presence in Iraq—unlike in Iraq, however, Panama never seemed like a war without end. Even many of the faces are the same: there's a younger Colin Powell, still in uniform, beside a younger Dick Cheney, in his tenure as Secretary of Defense. And George Bush is our President, and the news media swallow the story whole—what's presented to us as a story of shock and awe, of bringing democracy to the oppressed, upon closer inspection seems like a naked exercise in empire-building.

Elizabeth Montgomery serves as our narrator, and director Barbara Trent and writer/editor David Kasper walk us through the sordid and often violent details. It's no surprise that we're in for a bit of a history lesson, back to the establishment of Panama as an independent nation in 1903, principally so that the U.S. could construct a canal—never fear, for the old Rough Rider himself, Theodore Roosevelt, figures prominently in this. The case the film makes is that in the ensuing decades Panama was independent in name only, and operated as little more than a puppet state for American interests; the ruling elite was rife with corruption, and engendered increasing hostility and resentment in the Panamanian people toward their leaders and their American "advisors."

From the imperial perspective, things sort of went to hell in a handbasket when Jimmy Carter handed over the canal to Panama; and in Manuel Noriega we have the Latin American analogue for Saddam Hussein, the onetime American ally turned apostate, who had to be demonized and removed in a blunt display of U.S. military might. The Bush White House ginned up the threat of the Noriega regime, and the media went along—Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw are amply represented in clips that make them seem like no more than Administration patsies. And there's something obviously nauseating in preaching about the virtues of free elections, and then tossing out a government and installing handpicked leaders.

The documentary tries to make some more far-reaching points, but at best they're speculative: that the military exercise in Panama was essentially a dry run for the first Gulf War (which surely wouldn't have happened without the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), or that the whole undertaking was George Bush proving his manhood and trying to shake off the wimp label once and for all. And you can't help but think that we'd have all been collectively more attentive to these circumstances if Panama was rich in oil. But the assemblage of news footage, talking heads and background information makes this quite a brief for the prosecution.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Contrast is mighty high throughout—the transfer is fair, but it's a graphic reminder of how much videotape quality has evolved in the intervening years.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: I will admit that Elizabeth Montgomery's voice is enough to make my knees buckle; the audio transfer here is adequate, though lots of the news footage brims with static and is frequently incomprehensible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Soldiers Speak Out, Coverup, The Oil Factor, Arlington West, Plan Colombia, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, The Weather Underground, A Crude Awakening, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Five newly produced pieces (roughly an hour altogether) update us, take us behind the scenes, and connect some dots. In the first, Trent and Kasper discuss the project origins and reminisce about the production; From Panama to Iraq makes explicit the notion that this was a Petri dish for Middle East interventions. And many of the same talking heads recur from the feature, discussing the political evolution of Panama and the rest of Latin America, and the growing specter of U.S. militarism.

There are brief bios for Kasper and Trent, along with a raft of weblinks, to news sites, anti-war groups, and Latin American information sources. Finally, there's a typo in the menu of trailers from goodfilms.org: Plan Colombia is rendered as Plan Columbia, suggesting that nefarious things may have happened not in and around Cartagena, but in the Ivy League along Morningside Heights.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Perhaps overly susceptible to seeing dark conspiracies everywhere, this is still a damning account of a distasteful American imperial adventure, one that seems to have served as an unfortunate template for international hijinks to follow.


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