FILM/TV REVIEWS : Iran-Contra, Penn Make for Strong Stuff

It would be difficult to find two subjects for documentaries more controversial than the Iran-Contra affair and Sagon Penn. Neither “Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair” nor “I Claim Myself: The Sagon Penn Incident” will please all viewers, but both are guaranteed to invoke strong reactions.

The flyer alone for “Coverup,” which screens tonight at the Ken Cinema, is enough to spark controversy. Vice President George Bush’s face stares ominously from the advertisement. President Reagan is nowhere to be seen.

Probably a coincidence, right?

The documentary was supposed to be completed six months ago, long before the presidential election, said co-producer Gary Meyer, and the timing of its release is unintentional. Bush’s overt presence in the advertising for the documentary, produced by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Empowerment Project, stems more from “marketing motives” than political motives, Meyer said. “We here don’t believe the Democrats are God’s gift to morality, either.”


Bush’s role in the Iran-Contra affair is emphasized whenever possible in the film, which attempts to raise serious questions about the issues behind the whole incident, issues the documentary says were deliberately avoided in last year’s nationally televised hearings.

This is not a balanced, objective piece of work. According to the documentary, the U. S. government was actively involved in running drugs in Central America and planned the bombing of a press conference in La Penca, Nicaragua, to kill American journalists, as a means of mobilizing public opinion against the Sandinistas.

In a matter-of-fact style, the documentary accuses Reagan of delaying the release of American hostages in Iran until after his election in 1980. The documentary also says that a secret group of Americans connected with the CIA has been “mounting personal wars throughout the world” and that Ollie North and Co. were working on a plan to suspend the U. S. Constitution in order to plan “domestic anti-terrorism.”

The documentary’s tone is ominous from beginning to end. Graphic photos from the La Penca bombing are meant to show the horrors of American actions, and the shameful internment of Americans of Japanese heritage during World War II is portrayed as synonymous with North’s plan. But there is very little evidence to back up such terrifying claims against the American government. Some of the footage simply comes across as inflammatory.


Much of the documentary trumpets accusations made by the public-interest Christic Institute, which filed suit against North and other members of the federal government on behalf of journalists hurt at the bombing. The case was thrown out of court, although that decision is under appeal.

There is little attempt to present dissenting information, beyond testimony from the Iran-Contra hearings. The documentary makes a powerful statement that these questions were not answered by the Administration, but they are not answered here, either.

The producer’s main goal appears to be to condemn all forms of covert activity.

“Some experts claim covert action does not work in the interests of U. S. national security, nor does it create a more stable world,” suggests the narrator, actress Elizabeth Montgomery.

Montgomery is one of several celebrities involved with “Coverup.” Actress Susan Anspach is scheduled to appear at tonight’s screening, which is a benefit for Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), which presents information to San Diego youth about non-military careers.

Big-name entertainment folk such as Casey Kasem, Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Shearer and Edward Asner have also lent their names and financial support to the project.

No such hoopla surrounds “I Claim Myself: The Sagon Penn Incident,” a no-frills documentary made by local producers Bill Scott and Charles Landon.

Airing tonight at 5:30 on Cox Cable Channel 24, and every Wednesday in October, it is a gritty look at the sights and sounds of the Penn incident, from the night the young black man shot a civilian and two San Diego police officers, killing one, through to his acquittal by two juries.


Early news articles on the documentary labeled it “controversial,” and KPBS refused to air it because it was pro-Penn, among other reasons (it was old news, a KPBS spokesman told a reporter a few months ago). Yet, Penn was acquitted, and the documentary raises issues the two juries obviously felt were valid: racism and the aggressiveness of San Diego police.

The half-hour documentary, without a narrator, presents the emotions that gripped the public after the shooting, contrasting, for example, the services for slain officer Thomas Riggs with the candlelight vigils put together for Penn. The contrast is powerful and typical of the whole incident: emotion-charged scenes involving losers, and no winners.

It’s not hard to see how the documentary could be viewed as pro-Penn. The anger of the black community is shown in footage of community forums and interviews with witnesses. A “rap” song performed by three black locals, a sort of ballad to Penn, gives him almost folk-hero status. But the two juries also were pro-Penn, and the anger of the black community was (and is) very real.

Producers Landon and Scott clearly went out of their way to include statements by then-Police Chief Bill Kolender and the prosecutor, giving the program balance noticeably lacking in “Coverup.”

In any case, both documentaries are guaranteed to upset some people. But that is part of the power of the documentary form.