Investigation of a Flame deserves credit for good intentions. The documentary by Lynne Sachs focuses on a story worth telling, that of the so-called Catonsville Nine, a band of anti-war protesters in Baltimore who went to prison in 1968 for burning military service draft cards. But the film, even at a lean 45 minutes, sort of meanders around its subject without coming close to relating the profundity of what occurred.
On May 17, 1968, nine devout Catholics seized hundreds of draft records at a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, and proceeded to destroy the documents with homemade napalm. Dubbed the "Catonsville Nine," they contributed to a growing chorus of voices opposed to the Vietnam War.
The film is most effective in its exploration of how the Catonsville Nine's religious convictions fueled their need to express opposition to the war; three of the protesters were Catholic priests. It is an interesting perspective given today's political environment, where religion in politics is most commonly associated with right-wing social ideology.
Sachs, who grew up in Catonsville, makes good use of archival footage as well as interviews with members of the Catonsville Nine and others who were involved in the incident. And yet too much of Investigation of a Flame, from shaky handheld camerawork to close-ups of government documents, feels arbitrary and a transparent attempt to make up for a shortage of footage.
Shot on video, the picture quality is typically fine, although most of the old television news footage is grainy and damaged by small tears.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is perfunctory, if unremarkable. The interviews are clearly audible, and that's all you really need.
The sole extra is a five-minute film, AfterEffect, that provides a brief overview of the Catonsville Nine.
The low-key, reflective approach taken by filmmaker Lynne Sachs is a mixed bag. On one level, it's always refreshing to find a documentary that respects its audience enough not to force-feed lessons to its audience. But the lack of drama here doesn't adequately convey what was a passionate -- and, yes, dramatic -- act of protest. Investigation of a Flame tells you about the Catonsville Nine, but it falls short of true insight.