Panama Deception, The

Narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Trent's new doc, The Panama Deception, is a forceful straightforward condemnation of the Reagan-Bush policies in Panama, particularly the l989 U.S. invasion and its aftermath. Despite modest production values, docu' relevant message–a total dismissal of the "official story"–and timely release in an election year will increase its visibility, assuring bookings in major cities, airings on cable TV, and long life on video.

Shot and presented on video, Trent's docu places the December l989 invasion in a broader historical perspective, chronicling the American involvement in the region since 1903, when the U.S. gained control of Panama from the French. This background is most useful in understanding the changes in the administration's use and abuse of its diplomatic relations with Panama.

Docu examines the rise of Manuel Noriega to power and how Reagan and Bush first supported him (Bush boosted his income when he was on the CIA payroll), and then turned him into a "mythic" villain by labeling him "a vicious drug-lord dictator." According to docu, Bush also had a personal agenda in Panama, wishing to wipe out his wimp image and demonstrating machismo.

Panama Deception presents a consistent theory of the military intervention, claiming that the protection of American citizens, Noriega's drug trafficking, and the death of a Marine were just an excuse for implementing a long-planned policy to challenge and renegotiate the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal treaties. The Republican administration never liked the idea of relinquishing control over the Canal. Docu raises serious question about Torrijos' plane crash in July l981, just months after Reagan assumed power, officially declared as an accident.

Most of the docu describes the disastrous effects of the U.S. invasion: massive carnage, brutality against innocent citizens, refugees living in poverty. But the most engaging aspect of Panama Deception is its merciless indictment of the news media (print and TV) as puppets manipulated by the White House. Interviewing scholars, officials, and journalists, docu holds that the news media are part of the military-industrial complex, lacking independence in their coverage and ability to criticize power elite.

The film's strategy is that of juxtaposition of official statements with actual footage of the invasion's atrocities and life in a military-controlled country. Docu is particularly effective in contrasting Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams' repeated statement, "I have seen no reports of U.S. troops executing anyone in Panama," with devastating images of destroyed or burned villages. There is also vast difference between the official estimate of casualties, 500 according to General Maxwell Thurman, and 3,000 to 4,000 according to U.N. and Panamiam Human Rights Commissions.

Panama Deception is not as powerful as Trent's l988 highly acclaimed COVER UP: Behind the Iran Contra Affair. Docu is not illuminating enough; there is not much new information. Moreover, Elizabeth Montgomery's narration is functional but lacks emotional impact. The major deficiency is dubbing into English the testimony of Panamian refugees; their evidence would have been more authentic and emotionally wrenching if it were subtitled. Tech credits for small-budget (about 250,000 dollars) effort are modest though, considering censorship and restrictive control of the media during and after invasion, it is amazing that Trent gained access to her footage.

In the end, it's the immediacy of Panama Deception's message that counts. Shown just days after Noriega's conviction and three months before the elections, the timing of this important expose could not have been more relevant.