Does muckraking filmmaker Michael Moore even matter anymore? That’s the question in the wake of the tepid opening of his newest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, a spiritual sequel to 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which impressively grossed over $110 dollars (the next highest grossing doc is about $80 million away). Moore has been a loud progressive voice, a champion of the little guy, a provocative and some might argue deceptive filmmaker for three solid decades, but have we simply tuned him out? His last two movies (Where to Invade Next, Capitalism: A Love Story) have done middling business and he seemed to have lost a step. If anything can animate the Moore of old, it should be the stunning ascendancy of President Donald J. Trump.
I was expecting a take-down of our 45th president, but Moore doesn’t really go in for an extended catalogue of the mounting scandals, setbacks, and prevarications of the Trump Administration. It would be hard to keep up with the 27/7 news cycle that seems to fly from one Trump scandal or offensive statement to the next, creating an endless loop of scandals and headlines that can inure the public to negative attention (Trump is certainly counting on this as he games his base to disbelieve any and all negative coverage as “fake news”). By its a nature, a documentary takes a lot of time to fashion, and if Moore had simply made a two-hour catalogue of Trump outrage, it would have been instantly dated (he does sneak in some Helsinki footage of Trump cowing to Putin’s version of events). To be clear, Moore criticizes Trump and his cronies for the lasting damage he feels they are inflicting upon democracy and civility, but this Fahrenheit sequel is really all about the American people, namely those who have grown apathetic or too complacent in the notion that society will be safe and sound without direct and responsive action. There’s a renewed passion here that was solely absent in the last few Moore documentaries.
Moore states that Trump is not an isolated incident but a symptom of bad actors unchallenged for too long. This includes the media and especially the Democratic Party, including the Clintons and President Obama. There is more time actually spent railing against the shortcomings and decision-making of Democrats than there is on the Republicans. Lest you think Moore is blaming anyone and everyone for the rise of Trump, he even points the finger at himself and his own complacency. He regrets the times he could have stood up and challenged Trump, like on Roseanne’s daytime talk show in the 90s, or to his mouthpieces, like when he’s chummy with Kellyanne Conway on election eve. Back when Trump was still a Democrat, Jared Kushner was a producer on Moore’s 2007 doc, Sicko, which was also amazingly distributed by Steve Bannon’s company. Moore argues he too fell into the trap of complacency, of assuming Hillary was going to win comfortably, that a self-serving, unqualified candidate such as Trump would never be elected president, that the sensible American people would set things right. Moore’s film relives the slow, sickening realization of that fateful night by first crafting a montage of incredulous voices promising Trump had no chance (in a two-person race), and then he veers from the upbeat Clinton election party, complete with vaulted glass ceiling waiting to be ceremonially shattered. As the night wears on and tears give way, the glass ceiling would remain intact. It’s a painful moment to relive for any person hoping for the alternative, and Moore wants his audience to remember that shocked, stomach-churning feeling so it can be prevented in the future.
Moore’s thesis is that the only hope for our society pulling out of its tailspin is for new blood to be injected into politics and government. The resulting two-plus-hours seems to throw a lot of anecdotes and selective statistics at the wall to see what sticks. We jump from a teacher’s strike in West Virginia, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she canvasses before her upset in New York’s 14th district, to the Parkland High School students staging their own resistance movement for gun control, to the Flint water crisis. It makes for a somewhat haphazard documentary because it feels more like its parts than the sum, losing a sense of momentum. Fahrenheit 9/11 had the Iraq War to act as a narrative focal point, and it was timely and tangible and raw. Fahrenheit 11/9 is missing that central drive, which is why it feels like it’s too episodic. Thankfully his stunts and fitful attempts at humor, usually Moore’s weakest aptitude, are kept to a minimum so as not to further dilute the urgency of his message. His best section on Flint could have been an entire movie unto itself.
Moore’s personal connections to Flint, Michigan run deep and he has featured the city in every documentary going back to his first daring film, 1989’s Roger and Me. It feels like this beleaguered city can never catch a break. The government switched its local water supplies in 2015 and effectively gave every child in Flint lead poisoning, a condition that literally alters DNA and the DNA of future generations. This will affect the children of the children of Flint. It’s that insidious and tragic. The corrosive water pipes were a result of opportunistic greed, of trying to create a new pipeline for donors to Michigan governor Rick Snyder. It’s here that Moore sends up Snyder as a pre-Trump data point, a businessman with no experience elected to public office who took extra powers, blessed hand-picked emergency managers to circumvent local electoral choices, eschewed checks and balances, and installed cronies and crooked business partners into office. Snyder and his government knew about the lead poisoning for months and did nothing, and then they tried covering it up by telling doctors to doctor the numbers. It’s this segment of the film that feels most impassioned, most excoriating, and most impactful. If these elected leaders could knowingly poison a generation of children for profit, it could happen to you next. It’s here that Moore serves up his biggest criticism of Obama, who visited Flint after the water crisis gained national attention after months of suffering. He performs a stunt, which he swears was not a stunt, where he drinks a glass of Flint tap water to help his parched throat. You can feel the pained anguish of the Flint locals as one of their heroes, a man who was supposed to be a different politician, a man of the people, looks like another disingenuous politician.
But of course there is still time to ridicule Trump and his narcissistic tendencies. Moore argues that Trump has been hiding in plain sight the whole time and we’ve just ignored all his bad behavior and warning signs. There’s a searing montage of Trump’s gross obsession with how attractive his daughter Ivanka is, from talking about her future breasts as a little baby, to saying on a talk show that if she wasn’t his daughter he could see them dating. If you’re going to vomit during this screening, it will be here. Trump’s open admiration of dictators and strong men (he has said more positive things about Kim Jong-Un than John McCain) and his disdain for independent law and order, democratic norms, and American moral standing leads Moore to one apocalyptic conclusion. He warns that when, not if, some kind of terrorist attack happens and Trump demands new powers to combat this new reality, we will have willingly given away our democracy to a dilettante. Moore talks about shying away from direct Trump-as-Hitler comparisons but then throws up his hands in defeat and employs a few talking heads to make the connections more concrete. He even uses Trump rally audio and plays it over a Hitler speech, which was the funniest moment for me because of the bizarre dissonance (Trump is a much worse speaker). There will be people that tune out specifically because of the Hitler comparisons, deeming Moore an alarmist, which the man might agree with. He’s trying to sound an alarm to wake everyone up out of complacency, to get out and vote, to run for office, and to be more involved in their government so that it’s more representative of the 330 million people rather than an elite cadre of special interests with vast outputs of capital.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is a call to action to Moore’s ever-decreasing audience. It’s emotionally affecting and persuasive at points but it’s also too scattershot and lacking momentum, especially after Moore makes the conscious decision to keep Trump as a background presence, the latest malignant symptom of an apathetic voting public. Moore’s central argument is that too many of us, himself included, became complacent and now our democracy is in peril from a wannabe tyrant who doesn’t care about inflicting lasting collateral damage. If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete? Fahrenheit 11/9 is better than I thought it would be but it still left me wanting more of Moore. But if his message is anything, don’t count out Moore and the American people just yet, because with the right push, it can all come roaring back.
Nate’s Grade: B
Given the uncertainty, cruelty, and division of recent news headlines, in many ways the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the kind of movie we need right now, a film that reminds the significance of vulnerability, empathy, and simple kindness. It’s also, in certain ways, a pretty shallow documentary afraid to go too far with its subject matter. From the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom, this is another movie giving the spotlight to a reserved soul deserving of praise, and it hits you square in the feels. It’s hard not to have your heart warmed by the footage of Fred Rogers, he of the long-running and inspiring Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, impacting children and adults, seeing those smiling faces light up with pride and joy. There’s a woman at a commencement that thanks him for essentially providing her preschool education for her when her parents could not afford one. Rogers was not afraid to broach serious subjects, devoting episodes of his children’s series to divorce, death, assassination, and racial integration. It’s a neighborhood with a lot more daring messages than you might have recalled as a child. However, there are opportunities to push beyond the Mr. Rogers’ image (though he very much was what you saw) and the film shies away from going too far. The actor who played Officer Clemons was gay, but Rogers said if he came out he would have to regrettably kick him off the show because it would be too controversial. There’s a moment where the talking head interviews talk about Rogers transforming into his King Friday alter ego, but it’s over so quickly it seems odd even being mentioned. After the horror of 9/11, Rogers was brought out of retirement to speak, but he wondered if he still had any ability to really reach an audience in trauma any longer. I would have liked to have delved into these questions more, but that would detract, I suppose from the overall feel-good, glowing, crowd-pleasing and admittedly heart-warming portrayal.
Nate’s Grade: B
Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras won an Oscar for her 2014 film Citizenfour that followed Edward Snowden in his last hours as a free man. It was exciting, insightful, and had an exclusivity that made it a must-watch for a pertinent political issue. Apparently, she made that movie in between work she had already started on a feature documentary about Julian Assange and Wikileaks back in 2011. Risk, the finished product years in the making, is clearly no Citizenfour. The one selling point it has is its exclusivity, being trusted alongside Assange and recording all sorts of personal footage. Except what we end up getting is meaningless stuff like Assange getting a haircut and being interviewed by Lady Gaga. Strangely, the most compelling moments of the documentary occur off screen or are hastily cast aside in voice over by Poitras. The filmmaker herself was drawn into the story when she started having a sexual relationship with one of the head Wikileaks guys, a man who she later says was abusive to her friend and was accused of being sexually abusive to others. That angle should have been the focal point of the movie, a filmmaker acknowledging she’s lost her objectivity and questioning the motives of the men who might have good ideals but not be good people. There aren’t any new insights into Assange or Wikileaks or its fallout, and its connections to the 2016 presidential election hack, which would provide the film with a spark of relevancy, are haphazardly addressed in a truncated closing ten minutes. There really isn’t a compelling reason for this documentary to exist, and the reasons it should have don’t materialize. Go watch Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks doc or Poitras’ own Citizenfour instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
Spellbinding during every one of its mammoth 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary is the definitive journalistic examination on the nexus of sports, media, race, privilege and celebrity that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It’s also one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen. This is a monumental artistic achievement that seamlessly blends many different story threads to present a psychological, relevant, and compelling case as to how this notable flashpoint in race relations was inevitable. Consider the eight hours a searing and engrossing psychological study of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous cultural icons. The first part introduces us to O.J. the sports hero and you too may be surprised just how charming the man is, which along with his naked ambition allowed him to crossover into a primarily white business world. It’s important to know the full picture of O.J., the natural star, the narcissistic showman, the jealous and cruel monster trading on his sense of entitlement and the adoration of others. Part two follows O.J.’s grievous relationship with Nicole Brown and includes haunting audio clips of her frantic domestic abuse 911 calls, which were often downplayed by an appeasing and star-struck police force. As O.J.’s career soars he shuns larger responsibility to the black community, which is routinely rattled by shocking police brutality and a sense of institutional injustice, best typified with the controversial Rodney King acquittals. Part three begins with the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, goes into the Bronco chase, and then O.J.’s assembly of his Dream Team of lawyers. Part four is devoted entirely to the criminal trial and part five the aftermath, including O.J.’s arrogant attempts to live business as usual after becoming a pariah to millions. Edelman assembles an impressive coalition of interview subjects with startling personal revelations and sometimes shocking admissions. They all masterfully come together along with the narrative threads of the systemic history of Los Angeles police corruption and abuses, the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and its shamefully easy tendency to forgive the famous and horrible, and racial identity to form a complex, interwoven, and mesmerizing larger picture that feels like its own multi-media academic textbook with full annotations. It feels like a five course meal. This is the kind of powerful and ruminating documentary filmmaking that illuminates our understanding of the past and our greater connections to the wider world. O.J.: Made in America flies by effortlessly, packed with rich detail and archival footage, and serves as a terrific compliment to the brilliantly entertaining FX miniseries. This is a towering achievement in documentary film and rightfully earns the title of best movie of 2016.
Nate’s Grade: A
Conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza is a man that has been uncharacteristically good to me, personally. He’s made two utterly abysmal political documentaries that are hatchet jobs and were my worst films of 2012 and 2014. However, the man has been a boon for me as far as my own exposure. My reviews for his 2012 and 2014 polemics exploded and became e-mail forwards. They were quoted in message boards, progressive websites, and all over. I still to this day have people that randomly message me to pat me on the back for my rational and methodical take-downs of this charlatan. I wouldn’t say I was looking forward to D’Souza’s next would-be documentary feature but I knew it would likely contend for the worst movie of that year and that I would profit from extra website hits and plaudits. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is the underwhelming Return of the Jedi of D’Souza’s trilogy of bad movies. They all exist in a galaxy far, far away from our own reality. Then again D’Souza has been catering to an alternate reality for the majority of his huckster career.
My first problem is that D’Souza tries to rewrite his own history (he has so much experience rewriting others’ history) and pretend that he’s a First Amendment victim instead of a man who knowingly violated federal campaign finance laws. He purposely donated $20,000 under a false name to skirt finance laws and lied about it to the FEC, and as a result was charged with a felony and served eight months in a halfway house. Even D’Souza said, “I knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids. I deeply regret my conduct.” However, in his own movie, his twists the facts to present himself as a free speech martyr facing a tyrannical president. “If you make a film criticizing the most powerful man in the world, “D’Souza intones with extra ominous relish, “Expect the empire to strike back.” I don’t think Obama needs to worry about a movie that made $30 million total. D’Souza’s deflecting his guilt as an act of imperial censorship and retribution, and not, you know, him committing a crime and pleading guilty. The fictional recreation of his halfway house experiences are resoundingly hilarious for how tone deaf yet ultra serious they are, as if D’Souza had to scrap for survival. What halfway house is also populated with murderers and rapists? I wish we had a scene of D’Souza giving himself a homemade tattoo from an electric toothbrush. His slimy misstatement of his own felonious failings sets the stage for his third cinematic expose that fails to advance a coherent, rhetorically sound case for his crackpot and disingenuous premises.
Let’s tackle the man’s core argument and what gives his movie its subtitle: the secret history of the Democratic Party as one of blanket racism and oppression. D’Souza tries to make the leap that the Democratic Party is the biggest gang around, exploiting the vulnerable and naïve for nefarious, avaricious gain. He says the Democrats are planning to steal nothing less than American itself. His argument is that the Democrats have been conning the American public, and especially their contingent of minority and poor voters. He cites evidence that he feels is damning, though once again selectively removes context because it would undermine, or in many cases obliterate, his supposed point. D’Souza has to reach all the way back to the 1820s for his broadsides. Did you know that Andrew Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of Native Americans, and, I hope you’re sitting down, that he was one of the first Democrats? Did you know that following the Civil War many Southerners resisted Reconstruction and joined the Ku Klux Klan and were Democrats? Did you know President Woodrow Wilson was such a fan of the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, a film glamorizing the rise of the KKK, that he screened it at the White House? D’Souza feels like he’s stumbled upon his moral keystroke but he forgets that it wasn’t just the Democratic Party that was filled with racists during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth; the majority of America held racist views. To somehow suggest that those who registered as Republicans were immune from the casual racism of everyday society is preposterous. Case in point: at the time the Supreme Court rendered its verdict on the Loving case (tasteful movie coming soon), striking down miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage, a full three fourths of the American public disapproved. This was 1967, and the clear majority of the American public still held what could be charitably described as racially intolerant views. In the case of Birth of a Nation, an unquestionably repugnant movie, D’Souza is knowingly removing the fact that it was a groundbreaking piece of cinema and a global blockbuster. It wasn’t just President Wilson that enjoyed this newfangled moving picture, it was many, and it just so happened a majority of those people, Republican or Democrat, were racist.
D’Souza tries connecting the dots in a conspiratorial manner that demands painting mustaches on every former living Democrat just so they would have something to sufficiently twirl as they laugh maniacally. Jackson was apparently the progenitor of having slaves on plantations, as if this could be attributed to one person. D’Souza’s indictment of Jackson and abrupt empathy for the downtrodden Native Americans is in sharp contrast with his previous abhorrent documentary. In that movie, he argued that the Native Americans weren’t really doing much with their land anyway, that the pioneers were the ones who made it valuable, and that what happened to them should not be considered genocide. I don’t believe D’Souza’s phony crocodile tears over the Trail of Tears. If he’s going to decry Andrew Jackson for being a slave owner then why not the Founding Fathers as well? Why not George Washington? Because that would confuse his already confused argument. With D’Souza, the KKK wasn’t a grassroots organization of disaffected and angry Southern white men; no, it was a purposeful political arm of the Democratic Party. Wilson wasn’t just a fan of a popular movie; he and his cabinet were directly inspired to harass African-Americans. For him, the Democrats built ghettos, made sure to stuff them with immigrants, and wouldn’t allow them to leave. For him, Margaret Sanger wasn’t fighting for contraception for women’s health and equality but so she could stop black people from reproducing. For the record, Sanger spoke to whoever would listen to her cause, which did include the Klan at one point. For D’Souza, Planned Parenthood exists to wipe out minorities, and he even makes use of those undercover videos by conservative activists that got the activists charged with criminal activity, not Planned Parenthood, which was cleared for all outrageous charges. Everywhere he looks, D’Souza sees widespread conspiracy and the intent to do maximum harm. The shrill partisan attacks are amplified to the point that any points are muted. Not too many are going to defend Andrew Jackson to this day, but what about recent history, eh?
It’s not long before you start to notice a hard cap on all of D’Souza’s historical anecdotes. They all seem to end just about the time of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is by no means a coincidence. When President Johnson signed the bill into law he said that the Democratic Party had likely lost the South for a generation. Almost sixty years later, I think he undershot that estimate. The party of Lincoln is no longer the party of Lincoln, judging by their policies and candidates. D’Souza has to reach back more than half a century to posit his case that the Democrats are the real party of racists. This line of argument is somewhat tainted with the 2016 Republican presidential nominee refuses to recant his excoriation of the exonerated Central Park Five, tells African-Americans they’re “living in hell,” and far too frequently retweets ugly messages from white supremacist groups. Which political history is more relevant to today, the actions of the last 30 years or over 200 years ago? The Republican Party doesn’t get a free pass because at one time certain members supported abolition and women’s suffrage. D’Souza even says, “As the South became less racist, they became more Republican.” Huh? The parties have held the same names for hundreds of years but their policies and platforms have shifted along with the nation and culture. To pretend that Democrats or Republicans today follow the exact same policies from hundreds of years prior is intellectually dishonest and thoroughly facile, which sums up the host of D’Souza’s feeble arguments.
D’Souza’s grandstanding and myopic personal crusade gets in the way of his larger message. You could easily construct a documentary about Hilary Clinton being unlikable or hard to trust. She is often her worst enemy and her penchant for secrecy can be reasonably unnerving. You can make an anti-Hillary doc without resorting to ad hominem attacks and worse. There are legitimate critiques over the Clinton Foundation and its lack of transparency, but D’Souza can’t help himself. He shouldn’t have to utilize bracingly absurd, offensive propaganda imagery like a young Hillary watching the bombs of the 1960s with unseemly fascination, the slow-motion horrors reflecting onto her youthful glasses, a fascination to her calculated expression. He shouldn’t have to resort to such incendiary charges like, “Now we know why Hillary let all those emergency Benghazi calls go. She couldn’t make a buck off of them.” Excuse me? She let Americans die because she couldn’t pad her wallet? “Hillary’s plan was to take over the institutions of government,” D’Souza intones, as if she was a Manchurian candidate who activated instead of a young political activist in law school. The main argument D’Souza musters against Hillary, well after 75 minutes of movie, is that her husband was a serial philanderer. In what may be the most outlandish accusation of the whole movie, D’Souza says that her husband’s infidelity is her fault and that “in many ways she orchestrated all of this.” Just take in that statement. It might take a while. Let it settle in. She “used his addiction to make him dependent on her.” Bill Clinton’s indiscretions have been well documented and are worth another examination in modern light, but this is new. And then this icky nugget took my breath away: “Bill, after all, is in a long line of Democratic ‘plantation owners’ who took power over women in their control.” We had earlier seen Andrew Jackson in bed with his slave, though again other Founding Fathers are left out of this charge, like Jefferson, because it would dilute the message. The level of projection and armchair psychology is staggering and often without coherent evidence.
The shady tactics and paranoid fear-mongering feel rather played out the third time around. Conservative boogeymen are thrown out there (Sanger, Alinsky, Daley, Chicago in general) but it feels like D’Souza cannot even be bothered to properly lambaste them. It’s like he’s checking the boxes of conservative agita and expecting that he doesn’t need to explain anything because of course Saul Alinsky was connected to Al Capone and ipso facto Hillary Clinton is a criminal. He sets them up and chiefly moves along, propelled by some other point that never fully materializes. He purposely blurs the line between archival footage and interview recordings and slanted fictional recreations. There’s a strange recreation where Obama’s father visits his classroom to present an African perspective on culture, including a spear and tales of killing lions. Why does the documentary even require a scene like this? D’Souza only deigns to say Obama learned how to “pitch” from his father. It’s an odious dog whistle to its core audience to remember that Obama is an “other.” There’s another strange moment when a fantasy Hillary leans into the ear of a dissatisfied man to whisper, “They are rich because they steal from you.” As the star of his trilogy of lunacy, D’Souza is the hysterically nonplussed face of his own madness. His interviews often set up his subjects with leaning questions and confirmation bias. It’s as productive as watching D’Souza interview himself, especially when there are perhaps only four interview subjects total, half of them partisans. D’Souza puts himself as the head of his own story of discovery as he wanders around and looks wide-eyed and forlorn over the symbols of America’s greatness, like a field of wheat he solemnly touches. It feels like D’Souza is going through the paces of what his audience is expecting and serves it up without mental taxation. The movie even ends on three straight musical performances, including one by D’Souza’s new wife, that sum up America’s greatness through stock footage montage of patriotism clichés.
Hillary’s America wants to spare the nation at a critical moment in history, but D’Souza’s agitprop will only appeal to the converted or at least those viewers with an alarmingly low quotient for intellectual curiosity. “They can’t take America from us without our consent,” D’Souza rallies his crowd into mobilization (as a felon, he has lost his right to vote in the meantime). The reason I very much wanted to review this movie specifically today is because it’s Election Day and the country has been given a very stark choice. People talk about the deep divides in this country, and it’s men like D’Souza that are stirring those divisions, placating and agitating their audiences, and knowingly distorting facts and reality in a shameless attempt to milk money from the hapless. Here is a man who said Obama never truly lived the “black experience” because his mother was white. Here is a man who tried to mitigate the horrors of slavery in his previous documentary and termed it “theft of labor.” Here is a man who believes Christianity literally invented compassion. Here is a man who states that no Republicans owned slaves. He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have lead the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles. He couldn’t be an effective propagandist if he tried, and it really doesn’t feel like he’s even trying. Maybe at some level D’Souza is admitting defeat or at least sees the writing on the wall. He’s been on the wrong side of history and eventually history will judge him as well. Meanwhile, Hillary’s America is a disaster of a movie and the worst film of 2016.
Nate’s Grade: F
With agitator-in-chief Michael Moore at the helm and that provocative title, you’d think this was Moore’s critique of the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East. That’s what I thought too. I was surprised to find that Moore’s doc is really a rather gentle and optimistic examination of policies abroad that America should consider appropriating. Moore travels from country to country under the guise of “invading” them and taking their best ideas back to the mainland. It’s really a travelogue of the world and various ideas that give exception to the belief of American exceptionalism. In Italy workers get eight weeks paid vacation. In France, students get gourmet lunches. In Slovenia, there is free college tuition even to foreign students. In Portugal, they’ve decriminalized drugs and watched their crime rates drop thanks to an emphasis on treatment over punishment. Moore is still cherry-picking his facts (Italy’s high unemployment rate, Slovenia’s small population, etc.) and ignoring the multitude of cultural and government variables that allow these good ideas to flourish in their native lands, but he raises enough good points worth consideration. The humor of the enterprise is often forced and eye roll-inducing, with Moore playing baffled interviewer who just can’t fathom how these people live. The best segment is strangely slotted in the middle of the film where Moore travels to Germany. The sins of the past, namely the Third Reich and the Holocaust, are purposely remembered in monuments and education policy. It’s important not to forget the mistakes of the past. Moore then wonders what the U.S. would be like if we acknowledged the darker moments of the past instead of finding ways to excuse them (see: D’Souza’s doc and the worst film of 2014, America: Imagine a World Without Her). Ignoring uncomfortable realities is counter-productive, and Moore’s doc is all about accepting and implementing the good ideas of others to better our own country. The extra irony is that Moore himself is ignoring realities that conflict with his rosy message. Where to Invade Next feels like an extended segment of one of Moore’s old TV shows. It’s a bit rambling and dull and the whole framing device is too facile, but its simple mission of trying new things is laudable.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I would not be a film critic or even as ardent a lover of movies if it weren’t for Roger Ebert and his towering influence on generations of curious cinephiles. Every film review is likely going to touch upon their own personal relationship with Siskel and Ebert and this one will be no different (full disclosure: I contributed online to make sure this documentary would reach completion. You can find my name last in the end credits “thanks” section. The perks of being a Z-kid). When I was young, I would sneak into my parents’ room and wake them up, eager to watch not cartoons but the latest episode of Siskel and Ebert’s take on new releases. For me, Roger and Gene opened an entire new world for me, and hearing their spirited discussions over the latest Hollywood blockbuster or indie experiment would stimulate my imagination. Therefore, Life Itself, a documentary chronicling the life and death of Roger, including those difficult final months of his fight against cancer, is a tremendously emotional and personal experience for me. Even now it’s hard for me to write this review as I have a wealth of feelings churning. It’s like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire. It’s fitting that Roger become a part of the movies himself with a documentary that’s one of the year’s best and most poignant films.
This was never meant to be a film about Roger’s death. It was intended to be an adaptation of his 2011 memoir, the titular Life Itself. Filmmaker Steve James, best known as the director of Hoop Dreams (Roger’s #1 film for 1994), tackles the essential biography bits we’d expect tracing the cradle-to-grave approach. What makes this film more interesting is that it too follows Ebert’s own perspective he utilized in his memoir. Rather than writing from the point of view of being in the moment, Ebert acknowledges his age and looks back on the past not as it’s happening but as an older man reflecting upon his life. The thoughts are not so linear, the consideration more meditative, thoughtful, and overall thankful. This is a man looking back and taking stock of his life, grateful for the people that have elevated his experiences. The framing device of the movie happens to be Roger’s last five months of life, going in and out of the hospital and adjusting to the ever-mounting hurdles of his deteriorating health. It can be downright shocking and horrifying to watch this Ebert, his jaw hanging loose like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Never has the man looked more vulnerable and so mortal. It’s not how you wish to remember him, and Roger is without vanity as he wants the cameras to have access to his day-to-day reality no matter the hardships. As the months pass and Roger’s communication starts fading, everyone has to come to terms with the inevitable, and the viewer is right there too, bidding goodbye with Roger’s grieving family.
While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it’s a celebration of the man’s life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Can you picture Ebert as a skirt-chasing Chicago Sun-Times reporter? How about as a guy who would get drunk and hang from the rafters, causing scenes? Many likely don’t know that Ebert has one screenwriting credit for Russ Meyer’s 1970 camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a job Ebert likely took on so he could, in his words, “get laid.” There’s even a lengthy bit over their populist film critiques and whether the famous “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” model was helpful or harmful to film criticism. Life Itself does a fitting job tracing the roots of the man, with each chapter of his life given due development and consideration. I could have watched a four-hour documentary on the man’s life, but I’m not the general public.
The film is defined by two central relationships: Roger and Gene and Roger and his wife, Chaz. The first is the most famous. We track their initial growing pains taking the leap adapting their styles to the realm of TV. Gene was a natural, Roger less so, which only made Ebert more furious (photos of Gene “ladies man” Siskel gallivanting with Hugh Hefner are a hoot). The impact of their advocacy cannot be overstated. There are plenty of filmmakers that got their big break thanks to special consideration and publicity from these two. No matter the medium, these were the most famous critics of the twentieth century, opening up the world of movies to a new and hungry and appreciative audience. As enjoyable as it is to watch Siskel and Ebert in agreement, there was a special pleasure in watching them disagree because of the unleashed intensity. They really felt like they could convert the other person through sheer force of will. Their egos were both massive and Siskel knew exactly which buttons to push to set his cohort into aggravation. We see TV clips and unused rehearsal video and you feel like they might start a fistfight at any moment. And then that ire and ego forged into a deep admiration and love for one another, a love that Ebert reflects more tenderly of in the years since Siskel’s death in 1999. Gene didn’t want his loved ones to watch the clock, waiting for him to expire, and so he told nobody of his terminal brain tumor until the end. Roger was always wounded by this and vowed to be as open as possible if he suffered severe health setbacks.
The other relationship we get to witness come to a close right before our tear-stricken eyes. Roger met Chaz in AA, a fact she says she’s never publicly admitted before. He was over 50 when he married. He accepted her children as his own, whisking the family on faraway vacations and sharing his love of cinema with his stepchildren and grandchildren. Ebert credits Chaz with nothing less than saving his life, asserting he’d have drank himself to death without her. It’s a love story that forces us to watch the heartbreaking finale, namely Chaz coming to grips with the reality of losing her husband, of letting the love of her life go, something so profound. We’re right with her, wanting to fight on, try the next surgery, always hopeful, though in our circumstances we have the dread of foreknowledge. Then again perhaps Chaz and those close to the Eberts suspected as much as well, especially as his health faded so quickly in the spring of 2013. Just watching her talk about Roger in the past tense, you watch the ripples of pain reverberate through this woman. She’s the unexpected heart of the movie and one of many torchbearers when it comes to the legacy of Roger.
Ultimately, Life Itself is a love story. It’s a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It’s a love story between a man and a woman. It’s also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it’s our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger’s passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A
Conservative author and political speaker Dinesh D’Souza struck gold with his last documentary, 2016: Obama’s America. The 2012 film struck a chord with enough moviegoers to earn over $33 million at the box-office, and it earned my own hallowed award for Worst Film of 2012, a puerile character hit-piece that only served as agitprop. My in depth review even got picked up by other outlets and message boards and became something of an e-mail forward itself. So when D’Souza announced his follow-up, America: Imagine a World Without Her, I knew I would have plenty to write about. It’s not as overtly risible as 2016 but its true intent is possibly even more sinister. Let me assure you, dear reader, that I go into every movie to objectively critique what works, what doesn’t and why. I would welcome a conservative counterpart to Michael Moore, but Dinesh D’Souza is not that filmmaker, not by a long shot.
The film begins with an interesting “what if” scenario questioning what might have happened in history if George Washington had fallen on the battlefield and America had lost its revolution for independence. American monuments are turned to dust and ominous music pervades. However, instead of following through on this slice of alternative history, D’Souza switches gears immediately and points toward a new goal. He wants to change what he sees as a “shame America” narrative, fostered by the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and the “blame America first” crowd of liberal and academic nogoodniks. To do so, D’Souza seeks out to reclaim America’s past, which amounts to defending or mitigating the famous sins of America’s past. D’Souza’s demonstrably shaky logic disputing America’s past ills only takes a modicum of critical thinking skills to see it for the intellectually facile, dishonest, disingenuous, morally bankrupt rhetoric of a charlatan. Allow me to examine D’Souza’s rebuttal of the five reported thefts he examines in the film.
1) “Theft of land from Native Americans.” This one seems pretty obvious. They were here first. American settlers, as well as other nations, came, conquered, and Manifest Destinied the continent. D’Souza tries to argue that the Native Americans themselves would engage in war and take over other tribes’ territories; therefore their original claim to the land is nil. Also, the land is only valuable because of what the new owners built on that land. I guess America’s national parks have no inherent value then. It almost ends up transforming into a rhetorical line that the Native Americans didn’t know how best to use their own land, so they didn’t deserve it. The worst part of this segment, besides breezing over the Trail of Tears and countless broken treaties, is that D’Souza has the temerity to dispute the semantics of “genocide.” See, D’Souza opines that with genocide there has to be intent to do harm, and Europeans simply bringing along deadly infections the natives had no immunity for cannot count. Never mind the whole smallpox blankets episode, America’s earliest form of biological warfare, which was intentional. D’Souza then compares the decimation of the Native Americans via disease to the Black Plague. “We don’t call that genocide,” he smugly asserts. Let me provide a more fitting analogy: if Turkey had invaded the European continent, bringing with it the Bubonic Plague, and then purposely spread it to the natives to eliminate them, while claiming the land as Turkey’s own, establishing settlements, and forcing the weakened Europeans into small unobtrusive clusters, well maybe we would accurately call that by all accounts genocide.
2) “Theft of labor of Africans.” First, re-read that sentence and really let D’Souza’s slimy word choice sink in. “Theft of labor” is what we’re calling slavery now? How about theft of life, theft of rights, theft of future, theft of family, theft of dignity, theft of their basic humanity? This rebuttal is curious because at the outset D’Souza admits, “Yes, slavery was theft.” Everything referenced after this point cannot alter this declaration, meaning the rest of this segment is all about mitigating the terror of slavery. D’Souza says the United States didn’t invent slavery, and that even Africans would enslave one another. He literally uses the “everybody else was doing it too” argument children use to get away with misdeeds. He even tries to turn it around as a positive, enthusiastically informing us that America is the only country to fight a war to end slavery and that makes us a special place. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to celebrate other countries that didn’t require bloody wars to come to a consensus that owning other people as property was morally repugnant. Then D’Souza flouts anomalous examples to try and muddy the disgraceful practice of slavery. There were black slave owners, yes, because these people still exist in a crooked system. What does the existence of black slave owners prove? D’Souza’s unsourced claim that there were as many black slave owners as white slave owners is so obviously dishonest that it takes your breath away. But even if it were true, which it is most assuredly not, what does it prove? Is D’Souza trying to say blacks are just as complicit in slavery? Then he adds that white indentured servants worked alongside many slaves and they had it rough too. Indentured servants were still seen as people with human rights. There is no comparison to slavery. The end.
3) “Theft of land from Mexico.” This one is given even shorter shrift, mostly boiling down to a simplistic analysis of how lousy life is in Mexico. The United States gained much of the western states after annexing them from Mexico. D’Souza reasons that after the war we had all of Mexico and we only took half, so that should be acceptable. “I wonder how many of those in Mexico wish we had kept all of their country,” he intones.
4) “Theft of independence with foreign policy.” I forget the exact wording on this one, but really it just amounts to the American wars and conflicts in the last 50 years. Tackling Vietnam, D’Souza offers a straw man that has never existed in mainstream thought: that we went to war in Vietnam to take over their land as imperialists. The war in Vietnam was a result of the domino theory in thwarting the spread of communism, not to take over Asia. On top of this, let’s ignore the Gulf of Tonkin incident that was manufactured as a rationale to escalate a war in South Vietnam. All D’Souza does is interview one P.O.W. veteran who says he went to war to spread democracy. That’s fine, but one man’s experience is anecdotal and not indicative of the whole, let alone of the military command. D’Souza then says we gave back Iraq to the Iraqis and didn’t ask for anything in return, except, you know, permanent military bases that they objected to. Wars aren’t just fought for territory, they can be fought for profit by powerful interests; just look at the military industrial complex run amok. And yet, weirdly, D’Souza never combats Noam Chomsky’s listing of all the American-assisted coups across the globe, from Iran (1953) to Chile (1973) to Brazil (1964) to Guatemala (1954) and others. In 2011, documents over the Iran coup were declassified and admitted CIA involvement as “an act of U.S. foreign policy conceived and approved by the highest levels of government.”
5) “Theft of wealth by capitalism.” D’Souza actually comes to the defense of Wall Street, lamenting that America’s wealthy are under unfair attack from the unwashed masses. First, D’Souza conflates a critique of unregulated, Laissez-faire capitalism with capitalism itself. There are socialists and communists and others of similar ideology out there, but the mainstream left is not arguing for the wholesale destruction of the economic system of this country. A lack of oversight and unchecked greed and fraternal collusion lead to the financial meltdown of 2008, bringing the world to the brink of economic ruin because of the bad bets of Wall Street. Instead, D’Souza stages a silly example of himself running a fast food restaurant, complete with himself playing all of the workers and with a comical (?) Indian accent. He flatly contends that it costs the consumer more money to make a hamburger at home than to buy one from his restaurant, ipso facto “the American people are not being ripped off.” This is D’Souza’s insufficient summary of capitalism, ignoring the 2008 financial crises, ignoring the robber barons, ignoring strike-busting, ignoring the reasons the unions had to be formed in the first place because of dangerous, unfit working conditions that would still exist without intervention. Thomas Piketty wrote a 700-page book on the history of capitalism that has become an unexpected runaway bestseller. He studied hundreds of years of documents of all sorts and concluded that return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy, meaning the rich get a bigger part of the pie as time goes on. Economic inequality is hitting record rates not seen since the Great Depression, but somehow for D’Souza this is Obama’s failings and not those of the enshrined 1%, a.k.a. the “job creators.”
Each of these segments runs less than 10 minutes and D’Souza seems to brush through them with little effort as if the man can’t be bothered to knock down his own poorly reasoned straw men. Every claim that D’Souza makes is lacking in substantive facts. He has little evidence to support his slanted and mischaracterized claims. I only recall him ever once citing a source as he worked through his rebuttal of America’s past transgressions. That’s because D’Souza’s assertions don’t hold up under any trace amount of intellectual scrutiny, which is why he often defers to emotional appeals and anomalous anecdotes (Hey, a black woman became the first female millionaire selling hair products, therefore all ex-slaves could have prospered in this country if they only worked hard, never mind Jim Crow and all that). We watch re-enactments of the P.O.W. being tortured in Vietnam, and obviously our empathy goes out to this man, but that doesn’t erase a million dead Vietnamese and 55,000 fallen Americans. There is an absurd amount of historical re-enactments in America, to pad out its running time given the paucity of its argument, but mostly to fall back upon unfettered emotional appeals. D’Souza relies on the symbols of patriotism and actors portraying great figures from history, notably Abe Lincoln, to persuade his audience about the unimpeachable history of America rather than the integrity of his unsubstantiated and spurious claims.
D’Souza doesn’t even bother to cover his obvious biases with his interview subjects. He asks Michael Eric Dyson why the re-election of Obama doesn’t mean “the end of racism” (forgetting that half of the country did not vote for the man, and no, this does not mean every non-Obama vote was a racist). He props extremist Ward Churchill as the face of modern liberalism, referencing his comparison of 9/11 victims to Eichmann, and prompting him to justify dropping an atomic bomb on American soil as retribution. D’Souza then spends the duration of an interview with a Mexican-American student by asking him what the American Dream means to him. His interview subjects are also rarely identified onscreen, nor does D’Souza disclose such pertinent facts like the talking heads belonging to prominent conservative think tanks, ones that have lined his own pockets. There’s also a noticeable lack of follow-up questions. D’Souza’s interview style is also haltingly slow and modulated, as if speaking slower is the same as being reflective. But my favorite interview by far begins with these magical words: “Senator Ted Cruz, why did the Mexican-American War take place?” Oh my.
America lacks a general workable thesis to hold its claims and counter-claims together, which is something at least 2016 had going for it. This may be because the film’s possible real intent is only revealed in the closing twenty minutes, and it amounts to a plea not elect Hilary Clinton to the White House. D’Souza’s last effort to stop Obama’s re-election didn’t work out, even though he claims his ridiculous assertions have come true (the debt hasn’t doubled since 2012 and Israel has yet to become the “United States of Islam” as well). D’Souza enjoys reasserting conservative bogeymen, which is why we get more references to Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and especially Saul Alinsky. Until a few years ago, I doubt anyone even knew who this man was but now D’Souza, and others, have pinned him as the ultimate political bogeyman, contorting America from beyond the grave. That’s because his disciples are living out Alinsky’s anti-capitalist dogma, chief among them Obama and Hilary Clinton. There is a goofy re-enactment where a young Clinton is introduced to Alinsky in a high school cafeteria, and the scene is played with such ominous music and lighting that it’s meant to convey a sit-down with none other than the devil (Alinksy is quoted as taking organizational tips from Lucifer, so you make the connection, audience). Hilary wrote her college thesis on the guy even. However, when she graduated she turned down working for the guy and instead became a lawyer, so… I don’t know what. Hilariously, the Alinsky re-enactments are bursting with overwrought menace including one incomprehensible scene of Alinsky sitting in his car and scoping out school children for likely nefarious purposes. “Alinksy would love Obamacare,” D’Souza notes, which makes little sense considering the ACA is all about providing new clients to private industry. As a socialist, I imagine Alsinky would have preferred the public option found in every other Western nation.
It’s these kind of broad generalizations, armchair psychological projection, and guilt-by-association pleas that typify D’Souza’s documentaries. Last time he said Obama’s “anti-colonialist” views were all because he wanted to appeal to an absent father he saw a couple of times in his life. Now D’Souza is warning us that Hilary Clinton is doing the same but trying to appease the ghost of Alinsky, a man she turned down working for way back when.
The real question is WHY would anyone even pose arguments to mitigate the horrors of slavery and genocide? What morally charitable rationale can even be created to try and argue that these horrors were not as bad as history has thoroughly documented? D’Souza says he wants to take control of the “shame America” narrative, but in doing so he’s whitewashing and mitigating this country’s mistakes just to make, what, his core audience of conservatives feel better about themselves? In this, I must quote my critical colleague Ben Bailey, himself paraphrasing a quote from Al Franken: “Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard.” Patriotism does not mean turning a blind eye toward your country’s mistakes, past and current, nor does it make the ignorant more patriotic than the educated that accept their country’s past, warts and all, and pledge to ensure that those same mistakes are never repeated. Now, slavery isn’t exactly likely to return any time soon to this country, but the core tenets that enshrined slavery were looking at others as subhuman, as undeserving of equality, rigging a system to deny people fair opportunities, a true lack of empathy for the hardships of others. These traits still exist today and can still be found in modern domestic and foreign legislation.
As a movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her is also a failure. It’s a political polemic that preaches to the faithful, assuaging any feelings of guilt they may have had over the past sins of our country, and yet D’Souza doesn’t even offer a vigorous or even competent attempt to do just that. Unless you are already converted to D’Souza’s worldview, you are unlikely to be persuaded by this crackpot expose. The film lacks corroborating evidence for its outrageous claims and rebuttals, conveniently ignoring a larger context in many cases because it would disprove D’Souza’s disingenuous claims, that is, when D’Souza isn’t inadvertently disproving his own claims. History is written by the winners and Zinn wanted to show history from the point of view of the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and the lower classes that typically get lost amidst the resuscitation of kings, generals, and Great Men of Industry. D’Souza’s view seems to be, yeah history is written by the winners, so stop whining minorities and suck it up. After all, the Native Americans get to open casinos, so how bad off can they be? Here’s the thing: most people, liberals and conservative and everyone else, don’t feel guilt per se about Native American genocide or slavery, mostly because we were not alive and responsible. I feel no more guilt over these issues than I do over the other numerous acts of genocide, slavery, and general horror that populate the far-away past. But civilization is a constant work in progress and the responsibility of every citizen is to try and make this world better than it was before. The past informs our actions and our understanding of the world and us. Nobody except the fringe thinks America is a pit of unrepentant evil that has done the world nothing but harm. It has been a force for good but it’s also made mistakes, but to quote Stannis Baratheon, “The bad does not wash out the good, nor does the good wash out the bad.” We all love our country but just because some recognize certain inconvenient historical facts don’t make them any less patriotic.
With all of this exhaustively analyzed, allow me one more moment of examination, borrowing some of the armchair psychological speculation that D’Souza likes to primarily trade in. It appears that D’Souza has a healthy opinion of himself bordering on obsessive narcissism. He cheerily lets us know his past film ranks as the number two highest-grossing political documentary of all time, omitting who owns the number one spot and by a large margin. His name is listed SIX times in the opening credits, including credits for having written the source book, writing the screenplay, and “creating and narrating” the film. Much of the film involves D’Souza in his turtlenecks strolling along national monuments and looking forlorn. He is the star of the film. But there’s also the problem that D’Souza pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud, posing as third parties to continue making campaign donations in 2012. D’Souza admits, “I made a mistake. No man is above the law,” but he frames his guilt as martyrdom. D’Souza makes himself seem like the “latest victim to be targeted by the White House,” instead of, you know, a man who broke the law and got caught. He argues the White House, using the NSA and the (debunked) IRS scandal, are out to silence dissent, abusing whatever measures they have at their disposal (never mind that Bush began the wiretap surveillance program). I propose that America is nothing more than a cover for D’Souza’s conviction and to save face amidst impending jail time. It’s a 90-minute excuse not for America’s misdeeds but for D’Souza’s.
Nate’s Grade: F
The West Memphis Three murder case gained substantial notoriety thanks to an HBO documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who were on hand in 1993 to document the trial in their film, Paradise Lost. Three eight-year-old boys (Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch) went missing one day in May in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found the next day in a nearby creek. The boys had been hogtied and bore plenty of vicious marks, one of them having a severed penis. The horror shocked the small town and the blame landed on a trio of local teens (Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols). Miskelley had confessed under police interrogation and so was tried separately, but all three were found guilty. Miskelley and Baldwin were given life in jail and Echols, the supposed ringleader, a teen who disliked authority and read about magic and demons, was given the death penalty.
In the years that followed, thanks to the exposure of the Paradise Lost films (a second was released in 2000 and a third in 2011), advocates flocked to the cause, belied by the overwhelming belief that the three convicted had been unfairly railroaded. Celebrities spoke out and got involved, chief among them Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They began communicating with Echols and his wife, Lori, and personally bankrolled a new team of forensic experts to amass new evidence that could allow for a potential appeal. Jackson even hired Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to helm her own documentary, West of Memphis.
Denied at most turns by the same flat-footed officials, the West Memphis Three struck a deal with the Arkansas attorney general in August 2011. The three would be granted freedom if they agreed to an Alford Plea, a rare legal circumstance where a defendant can plead guilty while still maintain their innocence. Eighteen years later the West Memphis Three are free but there are still many questions that need to be answered, mostly involving the conduct of officials involved in the case and the identity of the real killer.
As an ardent follower of the case, as well as the three previous documentaries by Berlinger and Sinofsky, I was concerned that West of Memphis would be more or less a rehash of what has already been covered in earlier, better movies, and to some degree it is. When you’re the fourth documentary to the table, there’s going to be some repetition. Berg’s film serves as a nice introduction to the case for newcomers and provides a diligent overview of the main facets of the murder case. There are a few finer points that Berg’s film spends more time illuminating that I think are worth mentioning. The first is extensively laying out why Miskelley’s confession was coerced. The teen, whose mental faculties are low, was locked away in police custody, without a parent or lawyer, for most of a day, with only a scant portion recorded. On these recordings, Berg clearly points out, with the assistance from some expert talking heads, how police officials guided Miskelley into the statement they wanted to hear. It’s pretty damming stuff to hear and a clear-cut case of a coerced confession.
What West of Memphis does best is narrow its focus to police and prosecutorial misconduct, picking apart the evidence that put two men away for life and one on death row. The fact that the prosecution used Damien’s own teenage poetry against him, evidence that might simultaneously doom and embarrass us all, should speak volumes. This was a case where the only thing tying the defendants to the crime scene was Miskelley’s false confession and the flimsy idea that the crime scene was a satanic ritual. Berg finds several of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the stand about how the three were involved in satanic practices, and in those new interviews each witness comes clean, admitting they were pressured by police or offered attractive deals to link the defendants to the satanic motive. Their recantations are satisfying to hear and, in journalistic lingo, a true get for Berg and her crew.
We expect our law enforcement officials to be just but mistakes will happen; however, in the event of those mistakes, we expect officials to try and correct them, to make things right. What West of Memphis shows is that the West Memphis officials dug down deeper in the face of compelling evidence, refusing to admit when they were so clearly wrong. In the years after the case and following the Berlinger and Sinofsky films, there have been renewed efforts to revisit the physical evidence of the case. To a fault, every professional profiler, including one guy who was there at the founding of the FBI, concluded that the crime had nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. They also concluded that most of the wounds, argued by prosecutors to be responsible by a serrated knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s family mobile home (a knife the prosecution expressly knew Baldwin’s mother admitted to hurling in that lake a year prior to the case), were in fact made post-mortem by local scavenging animals, mainly large turtles with snapping jaws. There’s a reason that the wounds aren’t bloodier. It’s because the victims were already dead.
But the most enlightening piece of evidence is what was found thanks to DNA, namely nothing. On not one single piece of evidence or anything relating to the victims was one scrap of DNA linked to Baldwin, Misskelley, or Echols. Seems rather open and shut, doesn’t it? Except Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original case, dismissed the reams of new physical evidence and rejected the motion for an appeal. It got to the point where, at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state was arguing that the only new evidence that should be considered when granting appeals is evidence that points to guilt. The state argued, to the disbelief of the court justices, that new evidence that could overturn (wrongful) convictions should be disallowed. Fortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this motion unanimously. It’s quite clear that law enforcement officials sought to save face rather than enact justice.
Another aspect that Berg’s film does better is illuminating another suspect the police have ignored for 18 years, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch. The movie devotes a solid 45 minutes on the subject, painting a convincing portrait of a suspect with long ties to abuse, anger, lies, and manipulation. A hair of Hobbs, matching his DNA exactly, was found tied into the knot of one of the bound boys. Weirdly enough, Terry Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines for defamation, which fortuitously provided an opportunity to question Hobbs with the full penalty of the law behind them. Under oath, his story crumbles and his alibi at the time proves to have a sizable a gap, a period where the boys were killed according to medical reports.
Clearly Terry Hobbs is a compelling suspect though I wish the movie didn’t feel the need to resort to superficial assertions concerning how he “behaves guilty,” like his lack of emotion concerned the case. Questioning why he waited over two hours to tell his wife that their son was missing is a fair line of inquiry. Questioning his history of spousal abuse and violent run-ins is fair. Questioning why he isn’t more outwardly bereaved is not. It’s the same prejudicial judgments made against Damien when he was being tried, the idea that he just wasn’t acting like an innocent man (to be fair, Damien was also a moody teen at the time). Berlinger and Sinofsky are guilty of this as well, devoting a disproportionate amount of Paradise Lost 2 to pointing a suspicious eye toward John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers, and a theatrical, larger-than-life figure. At least with Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers make amends, and there’s a nice scene where Byers apologizes to Echols. This guilt-by-superficial-judgment is a dubious line of accusation that Berg and her film should rise above (just the facts, ma’am).
From there, though, I started feeling like West of Memphis is best served as a complimentary film to be paired with the altogether superior Paradise Lost documentaries. There is something to be said for Berlinger and Sinofsky being on the ground from the get-go, having unprecedented access to the victims’ families, the families of the accused, the attorneys on both sides, and the accused themselves. Naturally over three films you get a much stronger sense of the nuances of the case, but Berlinger and Sinofsky also gave you a much stronger sense of the community and the full context of the crimes. I was bothered at how often Berg’s film eschews direct on-camera interviews with Miskelley and Baldwin. Late in the film, as the movie explores Baldwin’s hesitancy to admit guilt for a chance at freedom, a friend recounts her phone conversations with Baldwin on the tricky subject. Why isn’t Baldwin himself on camera talking about this rather than a friend relaying her conversations with the man? Throughout the film, when it concerns the accused, the movie feels oddly removed from the source (Damien and his wife are credited as producers for the doc). It’s got plenty of talking heads and famous celebrities on camera but I’d rather hear from those directly involved. It’s just another reminder of the access and relationships that were formed through the Paradise Lost films. You’ll get a good overview of the fascinating and horrifying case with this movie, but to get a better understanding of the people involved, reference the meatier Berlinger and Sinofsky films.
By the end, even after 18 years in prison, it’s remarkable and inspiring how free of bitterness the three men are. They still have to live with the guilty verdicts but they are free, and rather than dwell on what was taken from them, the men are thankful for their freedoms and thankful for the diligence of the people who believed in their innocence, who fought long and hard so the day would come when they three of them would be set free. Berg’s film even dedicates its last moments to those advocates and their efforts, saying that their involvement made all the difference. This is an example where a movie literally saved somebody’s life. Without the exposure of the Paradise Lost, it’s very likely Echols would have remained on death row and been executed. On a personal note, this was the final moment that got me to cry (there were a couple others that made me teary). It’s because of the shared happiness and accomplishments of helping, in whatever small way, three innocent men get their long overdue freedom. I won’t overstate my involvement, but I was there, writing letters, sending in donations, advocating, since 1999. I have never been happier to retire a T-shirt than with my “Free the West Memphis Three” shirt (I wore it one last time to watch this movie). The forward-thinking, gracious attitudes of Baldwin, Miskelley, and Echols are inspiring, and it even inspired me to seize the moment myself rather than remain passive in a personal relationship.
Coming in after a trilogy of other extensive documentaries, West of Memphis can’t help but feel a little late to the party. Its strengths lie in deconstructing the prosecution’s case and assembling new interviews where key witnesses have an opportunity to come clean and recant. Otherwise, it’s like listening to another singer perform a song you’re already familiar with. The case is so deeply troubling and morbidly fascinating that there’s definitely room for four movies on the topic and then some; Atom Egoyan has filmed a movie based upon journalist Mara Leveritt’s book on the case, Devil’s Knot (starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth too). It’s easy to become immersed in this case; I know I have over the years. It all came down to a police force pressured to find a killer and three teens that were different in a small town. There are many tragedies tied to this case. The three boys who were gruesomely murdered. The three men who were wrongly convicted and lost 18 years of their lives. And since the West Memphis Three plead guilty, it means that the police can officially close the case, allowing the real killer to continue to walk free and unpunished. That should trouble every single person. West of Memphis is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary, though I think it’s best viewed as a supplement or introduction to the superior Berlinger and Sinofsky films.
Nate’s Grade: B+