Half-way through watching Mirage Men, a new documentary on how U.S. Intelligence agencies have deliberately sabotaged research into the UFO topic, I literally shook my head, saying to myself with a laugh “it’s a hall of mirrors”. By the end of the documentary, my statement had been echoed and expanded upon by one of the interviewees, Linda Moulton Howe, who described the entire story as “a fractured hall of mirrors with a quicksand floor”.
Howe should know: in 1983, while researching a documentary on the subject of UFOs for HBO, she was engaged by Richard ‘Rick’ Doty, an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), initially with the promise of helping her investigate an alleged UFO landing near Ellsworth Air Force Base. But Howe’s meeting with Doty took an unexpected turn when the AFOSI agent suddenly produced a manila folder, saying she could take a look at it but, not remove it from the office or make notes. Within it was a document titled “Briefing Paper for the President of the United States of America on the Subject of Unidentified Aerial Vehicles”, which listed a number of alleged UFO crash retrievals by the government, as well as paragraphs that became “emblazoned” on Howe’s mind concerning how they had discovered that Homo sapiens was a species created by extraterrestrials through genetic manipulation of primates.
Amazed by the information fed to her by the government agency at the time, in Mirage Men Howe looks back with three decades of perspective and wonders at the the amount of effort that must have gone into the deception: “they must have had meetings about ‘how do we stop a persistent and dogged reporter who has already demonstrated that she’s going to go after a really difficult subject?’.” The question that comes to mind, and which runs throughout this entire film, is ‘WHY?’.
This was not the first time that AFOSI agent Doty had willingly mislead investigators of the UFO subject, and it would not be the last. As such, he serves as the focal character in the documentary; it begins with the deception he helped orchestrate on Albuquerque businessman Paul Bennewitz, goes on to discuss the Linda Moulton Howe case, the infamous Majestic-12 documents (described in the film by another AFOSI agent, Walter Bosley, as the “perfect Perception Management Device”, though Doty denies any involvement with it) and extends forward to the more recent controversy over the ‘Project Serpo’ hoax.
And Doty is no doubt a worthy candidate for the film to revolve around. Coming to the documentary with a fair amount of knowledge about Doty’s deceptions over the years – with consequences (direct and otherwise) ranging from the wasting of UFO investigators’ time through to the mental disintegration, eventual hospitalisation and death of Paul Bennewitz – I already had a dislike for the man, and was ready to truly despise him. But one of the things that catches you off guard is how harmless and genial he seems – the man is sitting before the camera, telling you how he has deceived people, and yet you feel that he seems to be a nice guy that you’d happily chat with at a neighbourhood barbeque. Though as Bill Ryan, who was initially taken in by the Serpo deception, points out, that’s what makes him so effective: “Rick’s great strength is he’s a wonderful story-teller”, says Ryan. “He’s a very friendly guy [and] builds relationships easily”.
The jarring inconsistency between Doty’s disarming personality and his deceptive deeds, and the “fractured hall of mirrors with a quicksand floor” that is the subject matter, contribute to the overall feel of the film – one of unreality, with the viewer wondering exactly where the truth lies and even how many Inception-like ‘levels’ away that destination might be from them (are the ‘visible’ lies meant to make you follow the breadcrumbs to the real lie they want to sell to you?).
Using black and white public domain and Creative Commons footage as ‘filler’ helps maintain that feeling of unreality and deception, such as the cuts from the 1958 BBC television series Invisible Man – Secret Experiment showing objects moving without any visible cause, and the B-roll continues that mood with shots of empty conference chairs and long hotel hallways (always bound to transmit a lonely and alienated feel).
The audio too, from the droning strings/synths almost subliminally set behind interviewees words, to the various ambient audio noises accompanying footage and the off-kilter soundtrack, will leave the viewer feeling on edge throughout . Each of these elements suggest that the film-makers were influenced rather heavily by the style of British documentarian Adam Curtis (The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace).
Interviewees include the tricksters (AFOSI agents Doty and Walter Bosley), their marks (Linda Moulton Howe, Bill Ryan, Victor Martinez), UFO and paranormal investigators (Richard Dolan, Bob Durant, Greg Bishop, George Hansen, Gabe Valdez and more) as well as the author of the book on which the documentary is based, Mark Pilkington (read my 2010 interview with Mark about the book and film here). All offer their own insights into the hall of mirrors, from their own particular point of view. For instance, Bob Durant begins the film by admitting that “the general feeling amongst people who have devoted a big chunk of their life to studying UFOs I think is fear; that they have been taken for a ride, that these cases are hoaxes, but sophisticated hoaxes carried out by their own government”.
This range of interviewees helps bring balance to the documentary, and also will hopefully give viewers a wider perspective on the topic: ‘true believers’ in the UFO phenomenon should be chastened by some of the testimony, while self-labeled skeptics might have their eyes opened to some degree (‘skeptic’ Brian Dunning once told me that I had “clinically crossed the line to a diagnosable, treatable mental illness” if I thought there were psy-ops being conducted in the UFO field) and even perhaps have some sympathy for what some UFO researchers have been put through over the years.
Even the general viewer might take heed of some of the nuggets buried in Mirage Men, such as Doty’s aside that Paul Bennewitz was easily convinced by the AFOSI deception: “Paul was a World War II veteran, very patriotic, he always flew his flag – those type of people you can convince”. And, on a topical note, once you’ve seen an entire documentary about intentional leaks designed to mislead investigators, you might be a little bit more skeptical about some of the leaks that have hit the news in recent times, and wonder whether there was any government involvement or intent behind them.
Those looking for simple, obvious answers to either the UFO mystery, or government deceptions in a number of the cases, will walk away disappointed from Mirage Men, but I don’t think it should be a factor in judging the film. The film-makers do ponder the latter question, but trying to answer it just ends up taking the viewer further down the rabbit hole.
Was the disinformation meant to distract investigators from secret government projects. If so, as Pilkington points out, why did they encourage Bennewitz when they could have just told him (as the patriotic citizen that he was) to cease and desist for the good of the country? Was it intended to discredit the investigators for some reason? Or perhaps it was a psychological study in how people react to certain information and events, perhaps it was intended originally for ‘real’ enemies like the Soviets during the Cold War, or maybe it was all an exercise in how supposedly secret information is transmitted and by whom.
Mirage Men doesn’t break any new ground in discussing many of these topics: readers will find discussion of them in books ranging from Jacques Vallee’s Messengers of Deception through to Greg Bishop’s book on the deception aimed at Paul Bennewitz, Project Beta (Bishop himself appears extensively in the documentary). What it does do though is gets Richard Doty, a notoriously slippery man to corner, in front of the camera discussing the things he has done, along with a number of the other significant players.
The intelligent viewer will however ask why Rick Doty came forward willingly to be an interview subject for this documentary, given every move he has made on the UFO topic seems to have been precisely calculated to have a certain effect. He seemingly has no reason to offer all this information. So why is he doing it? And why does he admit to so much, but then deny involvement with Serpo when investigators seem to have caught him red-handed (via email IP addresses)? By the end of the film you’ll be second guessing everything more than feeling as if your ideas have been confirmed, and perhaps that was exactly Doty’s intent.
And, if you want to get truly paranoid, you might start to worry that the documentary’s creators go under the name ‘Perception Management Productions’ (echoing Bosley’s description of the MJ-12 documents), and has within its ranks individuals who for many years have created crop circles as a type of art, and then sat back and observed as those ‘anonymous’ deceptions have engendered their own belief system and followers. Fractured mirrors and rabbit holes indeed…
Mirage Men is necessary viewing for anybody with an interest in either the topic of UFOs, or the role of government agencies in spying on and/or deceiving their own citizens. The former may be a specialised group, but the latter should include everyone. A highly recommended documentary – if your eyes weren’t already open, they will be after watching this film.