With the heat of election season rising, most political conversations focus around the immediate question of who will be the next president, but the 2010 film S.O.S.: State of Security explores deeper, more lasting political issues. This documentary, directed by Academy Award-nominated Michele Ohayon and screened by Hoyawood on Oct. 23, questions whether the government itself is an effective institution.
“There’s nothing unpatriotic about questioning government — in fact, that’s the very basis of democracy,” Richard Clarke, former national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counter-terrorism, says during the film.
According to the documentary, at the beginning of George W. Bush’s term, Clarke had warned the administration about the Sept. 11 attacks and their connection to Al Qaeda before they occurred. Clarke assumed responsibility for the failure of the government to respond in a testimony given before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States in March 2004.
“Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you,” Clarke said during that testimony. Archived footage from the commission, including his testimony, is featured in the documentary to frame a larger discussion of national security.
“I found that Clarke’s personal story really reflected the story of the nation, starting with being very patriotic,” Ohayon said after the screening of the film. “I realized that he would be a vehicle but not really the story. He would just open the door, and I would go and explore it on my own because I wanted it to be my film and also have as many opinions as possible.”
Hoyawood is an organization dedicated to bringing documentaries to campus. For this event, they partnered with the “Snag the Vote 2012” initiative, which aims to inform voters about 10 issues critical to the presidential election by showing free independent films both online and in venues like this.
After the screening, Hoyawood president Reilly Dowd (SFS ’12) moderated a discussion between Ohayon, Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who is also featured in the film, Georgetown assistant government professor Matthew Kroenig and Senior Associate for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Daniel B. Prieto, who called in via Skype from London.
Throughout the film, national security professionals’ testimonies about issues still facing America today support Clarke’s emphasis on the importance of questioning government and forcing it to be responsible.
The film moves seamlessly between short, insightful comments made by over a dozen national security professionals, poignant testimonies from families and individuals dealing with the results of the Sept. 11 attacks and perfectly timed historical footage. In doing so, a holistic picture of the post-9/11 world is created that sustains viewer interest.
But the film doesn’t monger fear. There are few violent images — the iconic image of the burning towers of the World Trade Center is intentionally left out, according to Ohayon — and no one ever says that Americans should be afraid.
Instead, the film’s message is pragmatic, emphasizing a need for government to change its ways.
“We’re good at the business of peacemaking and we need to get back to it. And that’s how we’ll win the war of ideas — with our actions, not just with talk,” Bruce Reidel, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council, said.
The role of the American people — youth especially — is also emphasized, as a group of war veterans says: “We look at the government as, ‘they are all knowing.’ It’s the good of the people and it’s the American public that makes the decisions.”
Echoing this point, in the post-film panel Gen. Eaton stated, “If your leadership is immune to good advice from young people, it will not do well.”
While it is certainly a call to vote, the film never addresses the question of how the American public should view these issues or which party or politician would best solve these problems. At first, this seems like a drawback, especially because it deals so much with problems that, like terrorism, the American people cannot solve alone. The panelists also discussed issues that, while fascinating, were much too theoretical to be useful in polling-place decisions.
The film ends with clips of America’s brightest moments — the moon landing, John F. Kennedy’s famed inauguration speech and, more recently, American soldiers dancing with Middle Eastern children. With this ending seems to come the main message of State of Security: The power to change these problems is in the hands of the American people.