Title: Top Priority: The Terror Within
Director: Asif Akbar
An intensely felt but jumbled and poorly reasoned cinematic treatise against governmental bureaucracy run amok and specifically a series of Constitutional rights abuses by the Department of Homeland Security, documentary “Top Priority: The Terror Within” tells the story of Julia Davis, a whistleblower who found herself on the receiving end of a years-long campaign of vindictive persecution. A tangled mess of sprawling and sometimes vague allegations never wrestled into any sort of coherent and compelling shape, the movie chronicles a shocking story, but one that seems better suited to the television news magazine format, or at least a more polished, experienced nonfiction hand.
A Ukrainian-born immigrant who joined the Department of Homeland Security after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the aforementioned Davis was assigned to the San Ysidro border-crossing in San Diego. A stickler for rules and procedure, she was apparently a very professional and conscientious employee, with a serious chance of being elevated to the FBI, which was a dream of hers. Against the backdrop of increased reportage and focus on Al Qaeda attempting to infiltrate the United States via Mexico, Davis noticed and reported the un-interviewed entry, from a previous shift, of 23 subjects from terror-watch-listed countries on July 4, 2004. Panicked bureaucratic efforts to stem what could be a huge PR disaster ensued, with Commissioner Robert Bonner actively encouraging the launching of several investigations into Davis, seemingly in an effort to smear her reputation.
Things would spiral even further out of control once Davis voluntarily left the agency. Having been surveilling Davis under the auspices of the Patriot Act, ICE agents Herbert Kaufer and Jeffrey Deal would continue to track and trail her, eventually spearheading an illegal raid (no search warrant was ever obtained) of the Arizona home of she and her husband, Hollywood stuntman and filmmaker BJ Davis, with nearly two dozen federal agents using a Blackhawk helicopter. Litigation would ensue, naturally.
From its bombastic opening credits, which introduce key players in action-movie-style, to exploding graphics and an overwrought score by composer Cleveland Bledsoe, Jr., “Top Priority” is feverish throughout, to the point of gussied-up ridiculousness. Ron Peterson’s dramatically intoned, wildly overwritten narration only further undercuts any sense of serious investment. This is actually a shame, because once one gets past all the distracting noise and framing, there’s actually an amazing story here — more than a little bit infuriating and heartbreaking — about governmental overreach, military-industrial-complex waste and abuse of power. Davis’ father would suffer a heart attack during the raid and die the next day, seemingly the result of direct and callous inaction by federal authorities.
Unfortunately, in addition to desperately needing a trim (the film runs around five minutes shy of two hours), a fog of unclear charges, motivations and facts hangs over “Top Priority.” Owing to the fact that actress Brittany Murphy was at one point dragged into a hearsay allegation related to Davis’ initial professional investigation, the film (sort of) posits that she and late husband Simon Monjack were also targets of shadowy governmental payback, which seems tenuous at best. Some outside perspective on this story is sorely needed; the Davis’ both serve as producers here, on their own tale, and their (understandable) dander, combined with director Asif Akbar’s hackish instincts, overwhelms the movie. At least Stephen Colbert would be proud, though, since more than truth, an aura of “truthiness” surrounds this messy offering.
NOTE: “Top Priority: The Terror Within” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7. For more information on the film, visit www.TopPriorityMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon