Tag Archives: political documentaries

Standing Her Ground

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down

by George Wolf

If the title Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down immediately has you humming a certain Tom Petty tune, that’s fine. In fact, the way the film incorporates that and other hits, and music in general, is one of its many charms.

Giffords was an Arizona Congresswoman and a rising star in the Democratic party when she was shot in the head while meeting constituents in Jan. of 2011. Music therapy was pivotal to Giffords’s quest to regain her speech, and directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West are gifted with intimate home video footage that conveys the magnitude of her comeback story.

Giffords chances of surviving the gunshot were less than ten percent, and in fact her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was at one point informed that his wife had died. But when Gabby fought back, Kelly was convinced she would one day want to look back on her journey, so he picked up a video camera.

There’s little doubt that Cohen and West (the Oscar-nominated RBG) have a healthy admiration for Giffords, but they make a pretty compelling case why the rest of us should be “Gab-ified,” too. Her courage, strength and determination cannot be denied.

Archival footage and interviews with fans (including former President Obama) outline Gabby’s transition from manager of the family’s Arizona tire store to fresh-faced Washington centrist. She’s nearly impossible to dislike, while her partnership with the space-traveling Kelly sends the all-American appeal into the stratosphere.

And when Cohen and West line up footage of Gabby’s brain surgery alongside her husband’s intricate space station docking maneuver, it’s game over and the feels have won.

So when the film transitions to the horrors of America’s gun violence epidemic, it seems at first like too much of a tonal clash. But as Kelly is elected to the Senate and Giffords focuses on her Gun Owners For Safety movement, it’s clear that the issue is just as much a part of Gabby as is the music she loves. Avoiding her current advocacy would result in an incomplete picture.

Don’t be fooled by the relentless positivity here. Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down isn’t simply a greatest hits mixtape made by fans for more fans. It’s a gritty story of survival, and of making a commitment to making a difference.

And the joy of jamming to the 80s. Can’t forget that one.

Fascism Fascination

The Meaning of Hitler

by Hope Madden

At a time in history where fascism, neo-Nazism, nationalism, antisemitism and white supremacy flourish out in the open, it seems natural that our collective conscious directs its attention to the rise of the Nazi party.

And at the same time, doesn’t one more documentary about Hitler just add to his legend?

Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace) grapple with that conundrum in their latest, The Meaning of Hitler.

Their primary aim is to look at how it happened in the first place to see how it might be stopped this go-round without romanticizing Hitler himself. But that had a lot to do with how he became the cult of personality he was, and why he continues to fascinate entitled, angry people.

“The Nazi ideals were acted out by people who were absolutely normal.”

Historian Yehuda Bauer, a 95-year-old who knows firsthand, shares this insight. And while much of what Epperlein and Tucker cover feels well-worn, this one bit of information gives the film upsetting relevance.

That’s why it’s happening again. Hitler was little more than a spoiled, profoundly selfish, childish man who wanted what he wanted. What he wanted was evil, but he found that an awful lot of people were OK with that as long as they believed they would also be allowed to take whatever it is they wanted.

That sounds familiar, but thankfully the film’s main point is not simply to draw obvious parallels with another vane and repugnant manchild. Their central problem is how to expose a fascist’s need to be mythologized without mythologizing the fascist.

They find freshness and relevance, partly in the transparency of their thought processes. It’s often as though we’re privy to the actual construction of the film: images of Epperlein in the scene with a clapboard or boom mic, the sound of Tucker asking the subject a question.

Part of what makes this approach work is the way it deconstructs the propaganda that Hitler used to pretend he was more than a failed artist and spoiled child. Inviting us behind the curtain, Epperlein and Tucker puncture the gaudy theatricality that makes weak men look like something they’re not.

These filmmakers are making a documentary about Hitler specifically to point out that it’s time we end our fascination with fascism.

Down With the Sickness

Totally Under Control

by George Wolf

Totally Under Control is arriving at a complicated time, making a case that exists in a contrasting space.

The film eviscerates Donald Trump’s administration mere weeks from Election Day, yet it’s presentation is miles away from inflammatory. It’s timely enough to feature a tail-end acknowledgment of Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, but feeling more outdated with each day’s increasing infection numbers.

Directors Suzanne Hillinger, Ophelia Harutyunyan and the Oscar-winning Alex Gibney present a devastating case against the government’s handling of the pandemic. From the first documented U.S. case (Jan. 20th, Washington state), the response has been fought with brazen dishonesty, stupefying incompetence, and a firm insistence on politics Trumping science.

Apparently filmed in secrecy with the aid of a portable “covid cam” to avoid in person interviews, the film unveils its step-by-step timeline with a measured and confident tone. Utilizing a series of whistleblowers, graphs, stats and archival footage, Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger earnestly deconstruct the folly of treating a country like a business.

And though Trump is certainly an understood subject, the finger-pointing is never belabored. Indeed, a flow chart of malfeasance sporting this many lackeys and sycophants would usually conclude a conspiracy, but by then it’s clear that’s not among this film’s objectives.

Sadly, this crisis is probably a long way from being over. But when the history is finally written, the most nagging question will be “How in the hell did this happen in America?”

And there will be no better time for Totally Under Control.

How Firm Thy Friendship


by George Wolf

It might be more fair for someone who wasn’t an Ohio State graduate and/or rabid Buckeye fan to review TBDBITL 141.

But no one fitting that description lives in my house, so…

For the sadly unwashed, “TBDBITL” stands for The Best Damn Band in the Land. 2018 brought the Ohio State Marching Band’s 141st edition, and director Joe Camoriano takes us inside that memorable season with unprecedented access. (Camoriano’s role as the University Communication Director of National Broadcast Media might have helped.)

From summer practice to tryouts, headline-grabbing halftime shows to the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rose Bowl and Disneyland, we get a captivating look at how hard Band Director Dr. Christopher Hoch, his staff and band members work to achieve a status that is – in the words of former football coach Urban Meyer – “elite.”

Camoriano is wise to humanize the experience via three engaging band members. There’s Konner, who is realizing a lifelong dream as Drum Major; Sydney, a charming trombone player with boundless enthusiasm; and Thomas, the lucky sousaphonist who gets the honor of dotting the “I” in the incomparable Script Ohio.

These three are likable personalities and easy to root for, which naturally increases our investment in the entire process, and is especially helpful for anyone coming to this film wondering what the hype is all about.

Despite an over-reliance on video fades and some rough patches in the background sound mix, Camoriano’s footage is always informative and engaging, even occasionally thrilling.

And for those of us always ready to answer a cry of “O-H!” there might be a goosebump or three.

TBDBITL 141 is available now on Vimeo.

American Narcissist

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump

by Seth Troyer

Comparing America and much of the world’s shift toward fascist totalitarian ideals to the rise of dictators in the 1930s may at first seem over the top. Indeed, much of Dan Partland’s new documentary #Unfit may seem heavy handed – until you remember where we are as a nation.

We elected a textbook narcissist whose strategy for gaining followers centers around a self-obsessed “me first” ethos. He vows to bring back the “the good old days” and encourages an inherently nationalistic philosophy. Enter Donald Trump.

Really, it’s hardly shocking when this film reveals that a guy like Trump had affection for the rousing public speaking stylings of Adolf Hitler. Trump has not changed since his billionaire playboy days, his goal is still clear: “win” by any means necessary. Sadly enough, if that’s your only real goal, taking pointers from charismatic fascists continues to be a useful strategy.

Naturally, #Unfit is not saying Trump is Hitler, but that his fits of totalitarian megalomania have the potential to be similarly dangerous.

Until it really sinks in, it may also seem like a cheap shot for this film to compare Trump and his followers’ behavior to that of apes in the wild.

Trump’s mission to be the biggest and the best by any means necessary is as old as animal life on this planet. A leader who pounds his chest the loudest, who rallies followers around self-serving goals and shared hatred for outsiders, unfortunately remains a rather attractive choice in the eyes of many American voters.

Scenes of white nationalist pride and news footage of men screaming “go cook my burrito” to Mexican folks at Trump rallies are juxtaposed with scenes depicting animal “us vs them” mentality. The irony here is of course that the conservatives, who make up the bulk of Trump’s following, who often seem to have the most reservations around ideas of evolution and the link between humanity with the animal kingdom, seem to be themselves clearly emulating primal group dynamics.

Partland’s film is not always eloquent, and at times it stumbles into obvious biases toward the Democratic party. Flashes of former President Obama are shown as folks talk of “better times.” This documentary really shines when it keeps its eye on the bottom line, that Trump is not simply a threat to left wing politics but to American democracy as a whole.

Teen Titans

Boys State

by George Wolf

Imagine what you get when you bring over a thousand 17 year-old boys together to play politics.

Fight Club with zits?

You get Boys State, an annual exercise into the “civil discourse” of state government. An American Legion program since 1935, Boys State (and its corresponding project for girls through the Legion Auxiliary) gives selected high school juniors the chance to build a representative government from the ground up.

From legislative sessions and deal-making to party platforms, elections and even a talent show, the kids are immersed in it all. In the Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning Boys State, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss immerse us in it, too.

The result is an endlessly fascinating and thoroughly entertaining mixture of shock and awe.

Employing a predominantly verite approach, McBaine and Moss settle on four main boys to follow throughout the weeklong experience. We see glimpses of those who just came to play (“ban pineapple pizza!”), but our quartet means business. While Ben and Rene are elected opposing party chairmen, Robert and Steven are both after the big prize: Governor of Boys State Texas.

The boys’ different backgrounds (Rene: “I’ve never seen so many white people!”) create truly compelling characters who provide just one of narrative contrasts that draw you in, slowly deepening your investment until you’re hanging on every motion and debate.

As the party members draw their platforms with an eye toward victory… check that…I mean DOMINANCE in the general election, it’s equal parts horrific and inspirational.

Boys openly betray their principles for populism, jockey to acquire more power and gleefully pounce when they smell a negative campaign that might stick. They quickly learn the well-worn lessons of a fickle and often hurtful enterprise, either adapting or falling away.

The rampant testosterone can’t go unnoticed. Neither can multiple examples of how badly more women are needed in all levels of government.

And when all is said and done, one of our principles has to admit another is “a fantastic politician.”

Is that a compliment?

That may be a complex question, but only a few of these boys will watch this film again in 20 years and feel damn proud of who they were at 17.

Or maybe they all will. Boys State fuels both the cynicism and the hope required to make either road seem possible.

Your move, Girls State.

Crooked Lines

Slay the Dragon

by George Wolf

Before hitting play on Slay the Dragon, make sure you’re a good social distance away from Grandma’s fine china.

Because you’re going to want to break something.

Directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman open their deep dive into political gerrymandering with a quote from Founding Father John Adams about democracies and suicide. They then spend almost two hours making the case that time is running short for America to prove Adams wrong.

The film’s historical context of gerrymandering – or drawing Congressional districts in a hyper-partisan manner – is informative and even entertaining in spots. Who knew the practice got its name from pairing an old Massachusetts governor with a salamander?

But once it digs into the deep pockets and advanced metrics behind “packing,” “stacking” and “bleaching,” the film’s view that this a fight between voters picking winners and winners picking voters does not seem hyperbolic.

The direct, measured approach pushes hardest when reminding us that new district maps are drawn every ten years, so elections in a year that ends in zero – LIKE THIS YEAR – are especially important.

But to make their film a rallying cry for passionate turnout, Durrance and Goodman know that beneath the dirty tricks, blatant hypocrisy, systemic oppression, corporate greed and Supreme Court setbacks, there has to be hope.

We get it via Katie Fahey and Voters Not Politicians, a grassroots movement fighting gerrymandering in Michigan that began with a Facebook post. Fahey, a total neophyte diving into vicious waters, is instantly relatable and easy to root for, creating a narrative contrast that’s a bit simplistic but naturally effective.

It does get a bit long-winded in spots, but Slay the Dragon makes its case with enough info, passion and persistence to make it necessary, especially in a year that ends in zero.

Like this year. 2020. An election year.

Did we mention that?

Bore More Years

American Chaos

by Matt Weiner

As a documentary, American Chaos is in want of a natural constituency.

It arrives far too late to offer anything more meaningful than the endless series of “Trump country” news features, all of which confirm the noncontroversial point that the Republican base still supports its Republican candidate.

And the brief talking head interstitials with subject matter academics are both too pat to be targeted at Trump voters and too superficial to provide anything new for liberals that doesn’t confirm things they’ve already argued about back and forth on family Facebook threads.

As for the film itself, it’s similarly competent but trivial. Filmmaker and card-carrying liberal James Stern sets out in the months before the 2016 election to meet with Donald Trump supporters, hoping to discover for himself why so many people supported his candidacy. A fair number of the interviews offer genuine insight into the lives of apolitical voters—that is, the vast majority of people (on both sides) who don’t really care about following politics or policy as much as they have vaguely formed ideas around personalities and parties, and that’s enough to get by.

But we’ve had months of media profiles and years of political science research to tell us all this before. And Stern can’t help but inject himself into the debate, which takes the form of Sorkinesque appeals to hypocrisy and reason. It’s not that Stern is technically wrong when he pushes back—it’s that if he hasn’t learned by this point from his own interviews that there’s something else driving these voters than pithy speeches and fact checking and who “won” a debate, it makes you question just how much he’s been listening to the very people he claimed to want to hear out.

Stern’s documentary is an illuminating anatomy of what went wrong from a liberal perspective, but it’s probably not the one he intended to make. As the chronology races toward Stern’s one-two gut punch of Trump’s election and inauguration, he attempts to contextualize what’s happening to his worldview in light of the people he spent months interviewing.

One of his subjects sums up her political platform by exclaiming, “If the left is unhappy, that means I’m happy.” This is a more honest and accurate breakdown of the election and beyond in 2018 than anything explored by Stern, who spends his months traveling the country in a state of perpetual naivete and hashtag resistance outrage, unmoored and bereft of meaningful solutions from his party’s own milquetoast elite who, it turns out, were just as slow to adapt to a world where cultural grievance has subsumed political interests.

Tugging on that string and filming the visceral id that spills out would have had more to say about who we are as a country than the extended personal therapy session we wound up with instead.



The Year of Living Politically

The Final Year

by George Wolf

It may be an often misused phrase, but if you’d like an example of someone literally at a loss for words, you’ll find it in The Final Year.

Ben Rhodes, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, is trying to come to grips with the fact that Donald J. Trump had just become President-Elect of the United States. Rhodes tries several times to process a comment, and cannot.

It’s a striking sequence of an entire administration caught by horrific surprise, one of many indelible moments in director Greg Barker’s compelling look inside the final twelve months of the Obama presidency. Beyond the press conferences and photo ops, the film celebrates the daily grind of governing, and builds an ironic vibrancy from the slow and often frustrating march of persistence.

The goal is Obama’s vision of a “global common humanity,” and as the months wind down, we get close to the key players on his foreign policy team: Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Rhodes.

It’s The West Wing with very real, incredibly high stakes, and from the Iranian nuclear treaty to the Syrian conflict, from the Paris climate accords to Boko Haram, we witness a commitment to progress that might be…steady…”harder to dismantle if we take a different turn.”

Which, of course, we did, a fact that lays bare the anchor in this film that’s as bittersweet as it is inescapable. Government needs people this committed, this intelligent, this qualified, this decent, and right now they seem in damn short supply.

Is Barker selective about what sides of his subjects we’re permitted to see? For sure, as that’s what a director does. But whether your political lean is left or right, the suspicion that Barker’s sitting on video of Obama bragging about sexual assault or calling some country a “shithole” would occur only to the most rabid of Hannitys.

It adds up to a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall account of 2016 that arrives already feeling like a freshly opened time capsule from some faraway yesteryear, a magical time when Presidents might have actually cared about other people.



Filling Your Queue: Dirty Money


Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into what the Joint Special Operations Command does while it isn’t taking down bin Laden lands in DVD queues this week. Dirty Wars offers a provocative look at the evolution of the American military from boots on the ground warriors to a management firm handling targeted assassinations. Hell, we even outsource the jobs, and the kill lists, to warlords in Somalia and elsewhere. The documentary wallows in cinematic clichés here and there, but that tweaking of tensions is needless given the bewilderingly fascinating content. It’s a scary look at the likelihood of endless war.

Another eye-opening documentary -that far too few people laid eyes on – is 2010’s Inside Job, director Charles Ferguson’s look at the deregulation, greed, and glorified pyramid schemes behind the most recent Wall Street meltdown.

Ferguson makes complicated issues clear enough to understand without a phD in economics. There are no dramatically staged confrontations, just tough questions to stammering subjects who suddenly decide the interview they’re doing wasn’t a good idea. While this is tough material with plenty of facts, figures, dates and data, Ferguson does his best to keep it from getting too dry. The only thing keeping the film from classic status is a strange decision to have narrator Matt Damon close the film with a preachy sermon by writers Chad Beck and Adam Bolt.

That stumble aside, Inside Job is essential viewing.