You know, a town with an MRAP’s a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.
In “Do Not Resist,” director Craig Atkinson’s haunting and enraging documentary about police militarization, we watch as Concord, New Hampshire—a town of a little over 40,000 people, which has experienced just two murders since 2004—votes to accept money from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a BearCat. We gape in awe as Dave Grossman, an expert in “killology” and one of the most popular police trainers in America, lets a group of trainees in on a little secret: After you beat the hell out of a guy, you’ll go home and have the best sex of your life. We seethe in rage as a SWAT team in my home state of Missouri destroys a supposed drug house, busting out a family’s windows and breaking in their front door, to find nothing but a small marijuana bud in a guy’s backpack. Of course they dutifully arrest the guy and confiscate the cash he had on hand for lawn equipment for his landscaping business.
Viewed through Atkinson’s torrid lens, these are visions of an absurdist hell, scenes from our contemporary dystopia, in which our neighborhood police officers have transformed into an occupying army, complete with armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor that would seem more appropriate in Fallujah than on the streets of smalltown America. Atkinson threads together a lot of material—Ferguson protests, police trainings, SWAT team ride-alongs, city council meetings, senate hearings, and more—into a frightening indictment of contemporary police practices.
Atkinson has a good eye and a knack for exemplary details—such as a telling shield bump shared by two officers during the Ferguson protests—that attests to his background as a cinematographer. “Do Not Resist,” Atkinson’s directorial debut, shows a “Vice”-like flair for compiling on-the-ground footage into a punchy narrative package, but unlike “Vice”’s conflict tourism, Atkinson builds his material into a compelling argument. “Do Not Resist” arguably leans a little too heavily on a near-constant warble of ominous electronic drones to provide a menacing aura—and, in fact, a questioner at the AFI Docs screening I attended pushed Atkinson on this point—but I think the score works in concert with the film’s purpose, which is to push us to see these practices, which have become completely normal, as totally fucking insane.
That, for me, is the power of “Do Not Resist,” that it allows us to see our present moment for the science-fiction dystopia it has become. If we currently live in some mix of “RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers,” watch out, because, as one interviewee in the film suggests, we are careening inexorably toward “Minority Report” and “The Terminator,” a world of pre-crime and sentient predator drones. Resistance is futile.
In theaters on Friday, September 30th.
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