Investigation of a Flame
On May 17, 1968, near the height of the Vietnam War, nine members of the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission entered a Selective Service office in sleepy Catonsville, took several armloads of draft records outside, and set them on fire. It was a modest protest by contemporary anti-WTO standards, but it had significant ramifications for the anti-war movement in the United States, and for the men and women who soon became known as Catonsville Nine. Lynne Sachs' 45-minute documentary Investigation of a Flame (slightly revamped since it screened at this year's Maryland Film Festival) artfully revisits this footnote to recent history that took place right in our own backyard.
There are only a few glimpses of battlefields and wounded soldiers in Sachs' film; they are far outnumbered by scenes from jittery old home movies, shots of suburban lawns, and palsied pans over beds of pink and red hydrangeas. This is, after all, an account of the war at home against the war in Vietnam. Footage the Nine shot at the protest, excerpted extensively in Flame, shows it was a very polite affair. These people were no Yippie fist-shakers. All but one of the men (among them David Eberhardt, Tom Lewis, and famed Catholic priests and activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan, all interviewed in the film) wore suits. As the pile of papers kindled, thanks to a recipe for homemade napalm cribbed from a Special Forces training manual, the protesters crossed themselves in unison and prayed.
This is what Investigation of a Flame captures best: the heartfelt belief behind the Nine's symbolic act of civil disobedience, which sparked others like it across the nation. Despite the low-key nature of the protesters and their protest, they were given prison sentences ranging from one to three years; the late Mary Moylan, whose letters about the period are read throughout the film, ducked her jail time and wound up "going underground" for nine years. The film's most affecting moment features Alva Grubb, a juror in the Catonsville Nine trial, breaking down in tears 30 years later over the protesters' courage in standing up for what they believed.
Sachs cannily avoids the usual documentary dance of talking heads and file footage by interspersing the aforementioned impressionistic shots, even using stray flower petals to highlight key words in documents. While the oblique storytelling approach is visually intriguing, it feels like there's a lot of story missing. There is minimal context for the religious motivations of the Nine's act and almost no mention of what happened to them and the movement after they served their time; a subtheme involving the 1969 moon landing remains utterly inscrutable. Still, Investigation of a Flame provides a potent reminder that some Americans are willing to pay a heavy price to promote peace.