We've all heard the stories about Roswell, New Mexico and its infamous UFO crash site, as well as Area 51, the shadowy government facility where the body was taken. These, in turn, give way to plenty of stories about government agents, from Mulder and Scully to the Men in Black, who investigate these phenomena, and are of course supposed to keep their findings secret. At a glance, Mirage Men sounds as if it will be another investigation into the tantalizing secrets about our universe the government keeps locked up in a lab somewhere. Instead, it covers a related but potentially even more intriguing topic: the spread of fictional data about UFOs and extra-terrestrials by government agents and officials, in order to cover up more earthbound business being conducted by the military.
Co-directed by John Lundberg (with Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou) and written by Mark Pilkington based on their book of the same name, this documentary sits down with a wide range of former government employees, UFO experts, reporters, skeptics, and civilians about their experiences during the UFO craze of the 1970s. Major topics include retired military man Paul Bennewitz, one of the first people manipulated into believing we'd had visitors from another planet, who eventually had to be checked into a mental hospital as a result of his growing obsession, and William Moore, one of the FBI's greatest "assets" in disseminating their stories to the UFO community. Of course, no good UFO documentary would be complete without a little skepticism: reporter and documentarian Linda Moulton Howe floats the possibility that the story of disinformation is itself disinformation to dissuade people from asking about UFOs.
The film's "star", if it could be said to have one, is Richard C. Doty, former special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, who talks at length about his experiences delivering misinformation to Bennewitz and Moore. He speaks candidly about the business of crafting and perpetuating lies. His comments are articulate and sensible, but the subject matter and his dispassionate demeanor remind the viewer constantly why Doty was chosen for the job. In the course of explaining his work, he also expresses some measure of regret regarding the troubles Bennewitz and Moore would eventually face as a result. Doty insists that he told Paul to drop it "as a friend," and Paul refused, but Doty also casually reminds the viewer that he was, at the time, acting in the interest of national security. Footage of Doty captured milling about at a UFO convention is captured from afar, as if the filmmakers hope they'll catch him with his guard down.
In general, the tone of the film leans toward a sorrow that people like Bennewitz and Moore were suckered beyond the intent, especially considering how thoughtful and reasonable the subjects spoken to are. The Roswell story, still persistent today as the most famous alien incident, is revealed to be disinformation, and most of the debunking comes not from Doty but from other UFO experts who point out the number of holes in the story (Moore wrote a book that became central to the perpetuation of the myth). In this regard, Linda Moulton Howe becomes one of the documentary's most important and fascinating subjects, as a person who is convinced the government is continuing to lie. Is she being manipulated in the same way as Bennewitz and Moore? It almost feels lucky that Mirage Men cannot have a definitive answer, as the same skepticism and distrust shared by many people in the documentary, going both ways, creeps into the viewer.
Stylistically, the movie is nothing to write home about. Standard talking head interviews are intercut with public domain alien invasion movie clips, vintage photographs, and of course, newly-shot footage of folders being pulled out of a filing cabinet for the occasional transition, with the camera crawling along certain words and phrases as the interview subjects talk about them. In a couple of instances, the directors can also be heard asking questions from behind the camera, and in the case of Howe, speaking to her directly about the goal of the film. In my view, whichever one is speaking fudges the truth in order to ensure her continued cooperation, which briefly feels unethical. Yet, even if he's not being totally honest, there's an element of truth, tying right back into the film's theory on the concept of disinformation. As the film draws to a close, the subject changes from Roswell to "Project Serpo", a mission that reportedly involved shipping 12 US military agents to an alien planet for over 12 years. Although Doty denies any involvement with this newest theory, he reiterates the likelihood that much of the information in the reports is real, even if the story is fabricated. It's the perfect recipe for intrigue: keep 'em wanting more.
Mirage Men comes with cover art depicting aliens appearing in the reflection of a man's glasses, which is both evocative and also probably makes the film seem more conventional. Still, it's stylish, so that's more than can be said for more DVD cover art these days. The disc comes in a standard DVD case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, this is, as most documentaries are, a mixed bag that gets the job done. Footage from public domain alien invasion movies and newsreels, a source material likely captured on a range of devices, and all sorts of other clips and segments add up to a picture that varies wildly. A little banding can be spotted, and artifacts occasionally rear their head, but only briefly. The inclusion of a full 5.1 track as opposed to a 2.0 track doesn't seem to have been particularly necessary, as most of what's going on here is narration or interview segments. Instead of those extra three channels, English captions would've been nice, but alas, the disc has none.
Anyone curious for a good mystery -- albeit one with all questions and no answers -- should look no further than this fascinating and fun documentary about disinformation and the UFO community. You may not know what to think about any of what did or did not happen at the end of it, but that may be the most intriguing aspect of all. Highly recommended.
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