Robert Redford served as executive producer and narrator of INCIDENT AT OGLALA, Michael Apted's documentary companion piece to his fictional THUNDERHEART. The film addresses the mystery surrounding the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation on June 26, 1975.
By the mid-1970s, the Pine Ridge reservation had become the poorest in the nation, plagued by poverty, alcoholism and violence. The situation was exacerbated both by the corrupt Pine Ridge Tribal Council and its newly elected president Dick Wilson, and a US government intent on intimidating
supporters of the newly organized American Indian Movement.
It was in this atmosphere that two FBI agents assigned to Pine Ridge were called in to investigate the whereabouts of one Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted by the authorities for stealing cowboy boots. The agents, thinking they were following Jimmy Eagle's red pickup truck, pulled the truck over in an
area known as Jumping Bull, populated by radical members of the American Indian Movement. Shots were fired and some area residents, apparently thinking they were under fire themselves, proceeded to shoot back at the agents. When the hail of bullets subsided, the two agents and one Native American
were left dead.
There was no investigation concerning the death of the Native American, but the FBI arrested three men in connection with the death of the agents. The first two, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, were brought to trial but cleared of the charges. The third, Leonard Peltier, was extradicted from Canada
and, in a separate trial, found guilty of the two murders. The FBI, however, had allegedly intimidated witnesses into giving false accounts and tampered with documents in order to obtain the arrest. Peltier, professing his innocence, now serves two consecutive life terms in prison.
An acknowledged master of the documentary format, Apted (28 UP, BRING ON THE NIGHT) utilizes some of the same techniques that were showcased in Erroll Morris's THE THIN BLUE LINE--minimalist dramatizations, eyewitness interviews, selected scanning of court documents and transcripts. Apted presents
a scathing picture of Nixon-era paranoia in which the FBI and federal authorities, in a desperate attempt to avoid losing a second murder conviction, ran roughshod over Constitutional guarantees; the factual discrepancies, and the testimonies of coerced witnesses, consitute a chilling indictment
of a federal power structure gone out of control.
INCIDENT AT OGLALA is even more effective in establishing the context for the Pine Ridge murders, showing how the American Indian Movement arose as a reaction to the venal US government and the power-hungry Dick Wilson. In the film's most harrowing sequence, various Pine Ridge residents
dispassionately recount the most horrible acts of terror carried out by the Wilson-organized GOON squad (for Guardians of the Oglala Nation) in order to frighten families into leaving the reservation. Referring to the FBI killings, Madonna Thunder Hawk is recorded as saying, "There were shootouts
going on all the time ... before that and after that."
Apted's tight documentary structure begins to unwind after the Peltier conviction, leaving many questions unanswered. (What became of Dick Wilson? Was the death of a coerced witness in a car crash accidental? Why has the government refused to hear new evidence in the case?) The most glaring
misstep is the introduction, during the last few minutes of the film, of a mysterious Mr. X, who claims to have killed the agents. The man's appearance so late in the film, without a sufficient examination of his assertions, ends INCIDENT AT OGLALA on a note of puzzlement and disbelief that
detracts from the careful layering of evidence we have seen during the preceding 80 minutes.
Even given the questionable confessions of Mr. X, however, INCIDENT AT OGLALA presents sufficient evidence to warrant a re-examination of Leonard Peltier's case.
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG
- Review: Robert Redford served as executive producer and narrator of INCIDENT AT OGLALA, Michael Apted's documentary companion piece to his fictional THUNDERHEART. The film addresses the mystery surrounding the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation… (more)