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New Documentary Sheds Light on TSA Shortcomings

There’s a scene about halfway through “Please Remove Your Shoes,” (“PRYS”) a new documentary about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), that I’ve been replaying in my head since the Boston Film Festival’s screening of the movie ended yesterday. Here’s how it goes:

A former TSA special agent, Steve Elson, is standing in front of a dormant X-ray machine. Facing the camera, he tells a story about a test completed some years prior. A bomb was placed in a carry-on bag along with other common items a traveler might bring. A bottle of water was placed on top of these items, and the special agent executing the test proceeded toward security. The bag caught the TSA screeners’ attention, as it should have, and upon opening the bag, agents removed the bottle of water.

The bomb, however, went undetected.

It might be a stretch to say this single incident encapsulates everything you need to know about the TSA, but as far as “PRYS” is concerned, it’s pretty much all right there. The movie paints the TSA as dangerously dysfunctional—focused on “fad threats,” such as liquids, instead of real threats, such as bombs—and overwhelmed by its own ludicrous mandate that it treat every single passenger as a potential threat.

“PRYS” traces a 20-year arc from the early 90s to present day. It begins by describing security prior to 9/11, starting with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and illustrates a cozy relationship between the FAA and the airlines that resulted in airport security being cursory at best, and nonexistent at worst.

The central thesis of the movie emerges when 9/11 enters the picture. At that point, the movie laments, we had a chance to build a stronger, smarter, more efficient security agency. Instead, the movie says, we built the TSA.

The second half of the movie focuses on the TSA’s shortcomings, namely a tendency to overreact to past threats (see: the movie’s title) with excessive money and manpower; general incompetence when it comes to detecting potential threats; an unwillingness on the part of upper management to incorporate input or constructive criticism from front-line agents; and that all-too-common bureaucratic tendency to suppress whistleblowing in the hopes of maintaining a calm facade for the public and, more importantly, Congress. All in all, “PRYS” suggests the TSA is effective only through the brute force of its size, and despite pervasive waste and inefficiency.

But even as the movie constructed a persuasive depiction of the TSA as nothing more than a glorified dog and pony show, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie was missing the point. Anyone who’s flown in the past nine years knows airport security is deeply flawed. We’ve all seen the garbage cans full of harmless, half-full water bottles, and watched as confused grandmothers were wanded down by latex-gloved TSA screeners with handheld metal detectors. “PRYS” does an admirable job of telling us the backstory behind what we see at the airport. Where it falls short is when it comes to telling us what to do about it.

On the way home, I was thinking about the movie, “Food Inc.,” another whistleblower-style documentary that featured shocking, often heartbreaking revelations about an industry we literally trust with our lives. “Food Inc.,” succeeded, in my admittedly non-movie-critic opinion, because it aimed to empower its viewers. It focused as much on individuals reforming the system as it did on victims of the system, and offered realistic, simple ways ordinary citizens could make a difference. People left the movie angry, but armed with ideas.

Obviously there’s no practical comparison between industrial agriculture and airport security, but comparing the two movies’ differing approaches is nonetheless important: Unlike “Food Inc.,” “PRYS” will not make you feel empowered. If anything, viewers may feel there is nothing to be done. Aside from a few platitudinal suggestions along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing here) “improve communication” and “focus more on rewarding success,” “PRYS” offers few concrete, actionable solutions for fixing the agency. “Call your representative in Washington,” the movie’s producer told the crowd following the screening. But what to say?

Maybe the thing to say is, “Sir/Madam, I think you should watch ‘Please Remove Your Shoes.'” Because while the moviemakers’ failure to present a way forward is certainly a flaw, it’s also illustrative of a situation so profoundly chaotic it seems beyond comprehension, let alone repair. Maybe a better informed Congress could influence constructive changes at the agency.

Or perhaps we’d be better off starting over from scratch. After watching “Please Remove Your Shoes,” such a drastic solution hardly seems unreasonable.

(Editor’s Note: “Please Remove Your Shoes” does not currently have a distribution agreement, but has been working the film festival circuit. Check the film’s website to see if and when it is playing near you.)

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