Documentary The Newburgh Sting attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of four Newburgh, New York, terrorists who were convicted of trying to blow up Jewish synagogues and military planes (the latter via stinger missiles) in 2009. The film argues that these alleged conspirators were merely casualties of an unjust FBI sting. That operation, the film contends, involved a shady undercover agent who preyed upon, and entrapped, poor black men whose participation in the scheme was driven not by belief in a jihadist cause but by desperate financial concerns.
Directors David Heilbroner and Kate Davis’ trump card is a wealth of covert FBI surveillance footage of the FBI’s agent recruiting his cohorts and then helping them plan their plot – material that certainly suggests that the convicted terrorists were less Islamic radicals than simply amoral cretins willing to commit ugly crimes for profit. However, as befitting an agitprop doc, The Newburgh Sting refrains from presenting voices from the other side of the argument – pro-prosecution opinions come solely from TV news reports and interviews with congressmen and law enforcement – while using a raft of talking-head lawyers, relatives, associates, and Imams to make the more wide-ranging, and far less persuasive, case that the entire affair is an example of racist Big Brother government fear-mongering against African-Americans, Muslims, and the poor. It’s an example of a film so zealously touting its criminal subjects as peace-loving innocent victims that it can’t help but set off alarm bells.
Far more compelling, meanwhile, is Glass Chin, writer/director Noah Buschel’s evocative follow-up to his prior Tribeca offering, 2013’s Sparrows Dance. An old-school noir throwback of desperation, sorrow, and fatalistic resignation, Buschel’s film concerns Bud “The Saint” Gordon (Corey Stoll), a former boxing champ who took one on the chin and, years later, is now a failed restaurateur living in Jersey with his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) and pining for a life that’s more than “ordinary.”
He’s offered that chance via underworld bigwig JJ (Billy Crudup), who has a pretentious interest in modern art and décor and an even more pretentious fondness for using aren’t-I-smart big words. JJ tells Bud that he can have a new restaurant (in the West Village, no less) if he works for him – meaning, tag along with ex-military psycho Roberto (Yul Vazquez) collecting overdue debts from deadbeats. All of this, as well as an eventual blackmail plot involving a pugilistic prodigy throwing a fight, harkens back to classic noirs like The Set-Up, The Harder They Fall, and The Killers.
Nonetheless, using beautifully long, static takes in which the frame constricts its trapped-by-circumstance characters, Buschel doesn’t mimic so much as channel those forefathers’ bleak outlook on the possibility of palookas rising above their low-rent stations in life. The desire for a better life is the path to doom in Glass Chin, though in a starring turn of suppressed despondence and frustration, the charismatic Stoll makes a strong bid for earning his own shot at superstardom.