Documentary Film Review: S.O.S./STATE OF SECURITY (directed by Michèle Ohayon)

by Tony Frankel on August 17, 2011

in Film

Post image for Documentary Film Review:  S.O.S./STATE OF SECURITY (directed by Michèle Ohayon)


Richard Clarke may not be a household name, but his testimony before the 9/11 Commission in March 2004 was monumental: after serving under four Presidents as a security advisor, Clarke — whose warnings of possible attacks by Al Qaeda went dismissed — sat before America and said, “Your government failed you, and I failed you.” Families of 9/11 victims were grateful for the apology (even though it was thirty months after the attack), but it seems that Clarke’s admission had little effect on his ultimate goal – which is to restore trust in government. He had warned that an attack on Iraq would only strengthen terrorists, but into Iraq we went; neither the media nor the public protested because the risk of being unpatriotic shut them up.

S.O.S./STATE OF SECURITY - Theo Van de Sande - Edgar Burcksen - Michèle Ohayon - Richard ClarkeClarke’s public service is honorable; his attempt at whistle-blowing is admirable; his teaching style and belief that young people can still serve and make a difference is inspiring. The documentary S.O.S./State of Security, however, is such an obvious public relations and educational tool that its purpose – to warn of current cracks in U.S. security – becomes doused by the sanctimonious, one-sided observations of everyone who agrees with Clarke’s philosophy. In fact, there is so much finger-pointing at governmental negligence that you may wonder exactly how Clarke plans on establishing trust with a government that he had to apologize for in the first place.

No doubt documentarian Michele Ohayon (Academy Award-nominated for Colors Straight Up) had admirable intentions when Clarke approached her to make this documentary, but her straight-forward approach, while offering nuggets of wisdom and insight, lacks the creative treatment of actuality necessary to spur us into action. There are some juicy tidbits and wry comments from those who used to be on the inside (of government, that is), and there are also some jaw-dropping revelations, such as the precariously situated carriers of natural gas in Boston Harbor (one hit and hundreds of thousands of people will die). Still, in order for that information to resonate, those pieces of information need to be shown in the context of one man’s struggle. Yet we see less of Clarke’s early life that led to his public service (Kennedy made him do it), and more of the glorious spread in Northern Virginia that he calls home.

S.O.S./STATE OF SECURITY - Theo Van de Sande - Edgar Burcksen - Michèle Ohayon - Richard ClarkeThe “in-your-face” approach that Ohayon went for actually backfired: In a freakishly tight close-up, Mr. Clarke quotes that famous line from the fecund mind of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I’m sure the crew felt immensely patriotic, but it smacked of a Met Life commercial. And when the soft guitar music of Joseph Julián González plays in the background and Clarke gently pleads with us to “teach our children a better way,” it’s as easy to digest as over-buttered popcorn.

Director of Photography Theo Van de Sande and Editor Edgar Burcksen do some sharp work and the team managed to uncover some truly startling images of war, but the subject matter demanded more than what is essentially a big-budget 20/20 exposé. The subject of National Security is much too broad a subject; one wishes that the fascinating interviewees in S.O.S. (internet hackers, journalists, generals) each had their own film.

S.O.S./STATE OF SECURITY - Theo Van de Sande - Edgar Burcksen - Michèle Ohayon - Richard ClarkeThis wasn’t a story about Clarke’s life; it was a movie about Clarke’s purpose. I would love to know how his philosophies are affecting the populace. Perhaps the reason that was not in the film can be summed up by Clarke himself: when posing a theoretical problem to college students in a make-believe War Room, he refers to Star Trek and says, “There is no answer. There is no good answer. There is no answer that gets you to victory.” No answers? Yeah, that’s inspiring. The film was never boring, but instead of leaving devastated and roused, I merely felt nonplussed by the seemingly unfixable problems that lay ahead for our world.

tonyfrankel @

S.O.S./State of Security
not rated
opens August 19 in Los Angeles
opens August 26 in New York



Michèle Ohayon August 19, 2011 at 8:49 am

Dear Tony,

I just read your review. Very disappointing. Probably one of the worst in my 30 year career. I’ve never written to a reviewer, other than to say Thank you, (which is not the case here.)

I’ve decided to write to you because I, like many other of my peers, are tired of the personal attacks and assumption that critics like yourself take, (without even bothering to pick up the phone and talk to us), sitting on a desk and with full AC, while we are out there on the killing fields. Documentarians are not PR people- if we wanted to be we for sure would make a lot more money!

Furthermore, you may not realize how my creative vision comes to play, because I don’t like to impose it. I would rather have the viewer judge for themselves.

However, if you had looked closely, you might have noticed that 400 of the 2000 shots in the movie (!) were of archival footage used in a very unique way. I am not a believer that a documentary is made in the editing room. This is planned by the filmmaker, and executed by the editor. Same with images and imagery. The visualization was created in a non-straight forward way to illustrate an intellectual and abstract subject. I do my homework. Indeed, National Security is a huge subject. I realized throughout the making that Clarke was an “invisible” man, as he always operated behind the scene and behind closed doors. Footage of his “early days” would thus be out of the question. Any footage in the film is all that exists. I have tried to locate footage of him in the Anti-Vietnam demonstration, sent people to his university’s library (Penn) — nothing. I couldn’t even get footage of him during the change of administration, which he was consulting behind the scene on National Security issues. Clarke is a very private man, and following him with a camera, as I did with the subjects of my previous 4 feature docs, was not an option, but rather a challenge. This is why I approached others (General Eaton, Ambassador Chamberlin, Soldier etc), to have parallel, yet similar stories of dedication turned into disillusion. Commitment turned into resignations. That is surely not straight forward. And if it is — it means that the urgency of the subject demanded it. The content dictates the form. There is no time or need to be diplomatic in the filmmaking approach, when you deal with a straight forward, severe analysis of what went wrong. We had enough “diplomacy,” and the viewer wants the entire picture — without beautifying.

I am curious to know what you would say about the straight forwardness of one of our best docs — An Inconvenient Truth — at the core a power point presentation of one man and his views — is that Public Relations too???? Or because it is PC and uncontroversial it is accepted?

Furthermore, the “big” budget is actually not big at all. Most of it went to buy archival footage from big corporations who own footage that actually belongs to the tax payer. FYI. Also FYI, Clarke did not approach me. He did view my work to see if he wanted to be in this film or not. He had no creative input and never saw the film before shown to an audience in Berlin as a work-in-progress. I had final cut, as I always do.

Overall — I rely on the OBJECTIVE audience to judge my work. And from the MOMA premiere to screening for policy makers, NSN, Truman national Security chapters etc, I can happily say that you are off mark. And if you want to get popcorn while my composer, who just showed his work at Carnegie Hall (and Disney Hall plays his strings) — go ahead! We would though, question your taste in the arts.

The film maybe hard to digest. It is dense with criticism on the PAST. I sadly read in your words that the hope for future was missed here. No, there are no magical solutions. It would be naïve to think so, as we’ve seen in the past 2 years, right?

At least you saw it on the BIG screen, full HD, picture and sound, elements I ENVISIONED and paid for with my sweat and tears, mine and my children’s. Yes, those same kids I hope to urge to DO something, just like I did in the Israeli army and in inner city work. A public servant. Not Public relations.

Good luck to you on your career.


Michèle Ohayon
Diamond Lane Films

Tony Frankel August 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm


I can’t thank you enough for responding to my critique. It does mean a lot to me to keep the dialogue open. I rarely respond to letters, but let me clear a couple of things up:

You say: “Clarke did not approach me.” You should know that the press kit quotes you as saying that Clarke approached you. (Perhaps that is why VARIETY said the same thing.)

You say: “Overall — I rely on the OBJECTIVE audience to judge my work. And from the MOMA premiere to screening for policy makers, NSN, Truman national Security chapters etc, I can happily say that you are off mark.”

Let me get this straight: Richard Clarke’s critical message is dismissed, presumably because the Bush administration thought he was off-mark, but my opinion, which is not shared by people in your audience, is dismissed by you as off-mark.

Clarke is an honest man and so am I. We both see things from a different perspective, yet we, as critics, are dismissed in American society. Don’t you think the parallels are more than coincidental?

Tony Frankel

Zebrina Petrie November 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm

It was a decent movie; it may have had a lot of various info but the message I left with was “lead by example.”

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