Watching the documentary Val, comprised from thousands of hours of home videos shot by actor Val Kilmer over the course of 30 years, may make you realize just how little you know about the actor. His reputation is that he’s difficult to work with, conceited, and Method to the point of losing himself in roles and pushing his co-stars to the brink of sanity. Coming from his own words, narrated by his son Jack, naturally allows the most empathetic read of the man and his rationale for his personal and professional decisions. I never knew about his family life, losing his teenage brother who was an inspiration and early collaborator. I never knew Kilmer wrote his own plays, including a student production at Juliard that broke new ground. I never even knew he was an early adopter of technology and had a warehouse filled with his self-documentation and behind the scenes footage (Kilmer is even credited with the doc’s cinematography). You get the sense of a wounded and restless soul, a handsome movie star who so rarely found a film role that allowed him to feel like an artist in his element. Kilmer can be one of his generation’s greatest actors, as evidenced in classics like Heat and Tombstone and as Jim Morrison in The Doors, still one of the greatest acting performances I’ve ever watched. Kilmer languished through plenty of studio dreck as well. His time as Batman is marked by dejection and loneliness, stuck playing the straight man in a movie of oddballs and trapped in a suit of limited mobility and an inability to hear (actors and crew started avoiding him in the Bat suit because he couldn’t respond). Strewn throughout the movie is contemporary footage of Kilmer after beating throat cancer, though the subsequent surgeries have left his speech haggard. Listening to the labored and tortured sound of his voice is a direct jab to your sympathy. Given that this is produced by Kilmer from his own archives, and narrated by his son, the documentary isn’t as critical as it could have been. I wish the movie provided more self-analysis for Kilmer, especially on some of his rockier relationships and onset disruptions, like for the notorious Island of Doctor Moreau. I don’t think you can still fall back on his deceased brother for decades of his behavior. There’s a limit to the level of insight because it feels a bit like Kilmer managing his reputation and legacy within the industry. Still, for nearly two hours, Val can be a poignant and illuminating expose of an actor with a reputation for equal parts trouble and brilliance.
Nate’s Grade: B
If you were entertained by the documented disasters of the Fyre Fest, then the re-examination of the many failures of Woodstock 1999 will provide that same rubbernecking fascination. With twenty years of clarity, the varied interview subjects, from wiser attendants to music journalists to the promoters themselves, try to best account for where things went so horribly wrong. Director Garret Price (Love, Antosha) methodically assembles the pieces that lead to Woodstock 1999 literally going up in smoke by the end of its volatile, three-day festival. Price opens the film, now available on HBO Max, by saying he viewed Woodstock ’99 not as some incredulous comedy, like the immediate response to the Fyre Fest, but as “a horror movie.” That’s an accurate summation, but it also plays out like a tragedy born of incompetence and ignorance.
In some ways, this is far worse than the Fyre Fest, which drew widespread mockery and couldn’t even get off the ground with its fledgling festival. Woodstock ’99 was born of a desire to further cash-in on the brand of the seminal concert experience, but the promoters made significant decisions that would later spell their doom in the name of capitalism. Festival planners Michael Lang and John Schuer lament that in ’69 and ’94 so many people got in for free by slipping under flimsy fences. This was going to be corrected, and so ’99 was set on an old Air Force base with a razor-wire fence line. The base was woefully ill-equipped to host a multi-day festival. The copious blacktop was reflective of the scorching heat and the infrastructure wasn’t present for the human scope of waste management. The port-a-potties were quickly overrun and overflowing, and in one of the most stomach-churning moments, festival attendants are seen rolling in what they think is mud, much like in 1994, but it was actually human feces. Hundreds of people had to be carted out from dehydration, and one person died. Bottled water was four dollars, the same price as the beer, and the “free water” stations were quickly compromised by drunk festivalgoers breaking them or bathing in the supply. The hundred-degree temperatures were boiling the thousands of attendants who slept under meager shadows of boxes and carts where they could. The two main stages were literally a mile apart, which required long walks in powerful heat and without adequate hydration and hygienic installations. The festival put together a line-up packed with artists and points of attraction, from all-night raves to a skate park to a film festival to advocacy boards gathering signatures and passing out free candles (whoops). They just didn’t plan on the needs of the festivalgoers. They only saw them as consumers, people to buy buy buy, and not as guests needing to be properly cared for too. The old ’69 festival meant to symbolize the Counterculture was selling overpriced T-shirts and water on a military base? The cascading results of tragedy and chaos are already in play by day one of the three days. From there, it’s waiting and watching missteps add up until its calamitous and fiery conclusion.
Where the movie starts to lose its focus is when it aims to make Woodstock ’99 a significant and important statement about a shift in culture. It seems clear to me that the reason that everything went so disastrously wrong in ’99 was because of its poor planning and lack of foresight, oblivious and enabling promoters, and its misreading of its audience. I’m not going to broadly categorize every lover of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock as a wannabe fraternity bro looking for vulnerable women to harass. That’s unfair. Lang and Schuer place heavy blame on Fred Durst whipping up the audience into a froth of impressionable anger. The movie’s many interview subjects also take more time to describe the makeup of the people at the festival as young, white, male, and aimlessly angry. They blame the musical artists for the destruction and chaos of ’99, but who hired these bands and scheduled them, huh? Who hired Jewel to perform before Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine? These same rock bands being singled out for blame toured together under the imprinter of the Family Values Tour, and not one of those stops resulted in the destruction and fury of Woodstock ’99. It’s the same crowd, right, and even more condensed together, so then why weren’t the results repeated? Because the music, whatever you think of it artistically, and there’s plenty to grouse about with its misogyny and general ear-sludge quality, is not to blame for the failures of bad management and lapsed security.
As a meaningful epoch in society, Woodstock ’99 doesn’t quite add up with the import that several interview subjects want to project onto it. The problem is the mystique of Woodstock itself. The 1969 festival is a cultural touchstone for the Boomer generation, but it’s also been cultivated thanks to selective memory, nostalgia, and media myth-making. The negatives and failures of the original three days, like the fires and deaths and logistical shortcomings, are mitigated by the perception of the festival and its five-and-a-half-hour Oscar-winning 1970 documentary. The reality of the festival was transformed into a transcendent experience that never really existed as advertised, and so when Land and Schuer repackaged Woodstock for a new generation, they had a willing audience ready to have their own generation-defining experience. The ’99 festival isn’t any more of a meaningful cultural statement as was the fabled ‘69 festival. It was just crass commercialism disguising itself as “peace, love, and rock and roll,” and no different than the hopeful influencers and Millennials that flocked to the Fyre Fest. It’s all selling a cultivated perception. Woodstock ’99 has no more lasting cultural impact than any Coachella festival. It came at a bizarre crossroads in time between music, technology, and a coarsening of masculinity, but that doesn’t mean that it was some larger truth being revealed. The assertions to provide larger, thematic meaning come across as too searching.
Another sticking point for me is that the film criticizes the exploitation of women and yet the movie falls under the same traps of exploitation for questionable value. Price’s gamut of condemnations for the ’99 promoters hits a level of extra righteous fury when it comes to the treatment of the female attendants, many of whom were groped, sexually assaulted, and raped. Lang and Schuer acknowledge the lecherous behavior of the heavy population of agro-males but dismiss the accusations of sexual violence as statistically minimal for the massive three-day festival. In the documentary’s most incendiary moment, Schuer accuses the very women who elected to go topless of being culpable for their own assaults. Rightfully so, Price immediately cuts from this noxious statement to a female journalist who calls out this jaw-dropping example of gross victim blaming. Not every woman who was groped or assaulted even chose to go topless; many of them were simply vulnerable and present and could not get away. The documentary discusses at great length the reality of the prevalence of sexual assault during the ’99 fest, enough so that even the lead singer from The Offspring was pleading onstage with the revved-up audience to stop molesting women who just wanted to crowd surf in peace.
The consideration the movie shows is just and justified; however, this advocacy is muddled by Price’s prurient editing decisions. His interview subjects, and by extension the perspective of the filmmaker, admonishes the pay-per-view cameras for seeking out as many exposed breasts as possible to satiate its young male audience. This included scenes of women flashing their breasts but also women having their clothes ripped from their bodies. This exploitation is echoed in Price’s problematic editing. There are dozens and dozens of topless women intertwined throughout the movie and, most troubling, scenes of women being molested, women desperately trying to pull their tops back into place while grabby hands reach for their exposed bodies. I can understand not wanting to dull the disturbing reality of what these women endured but how many visual examples do we need to make the point stick? How many examples of literal molestation, groping, and assault should the audience endure? Is this onslaught of visual examples not further exploiting these same young women and their trauma? Price could have even obscured the identities of the victims or blurred out their nudity, something that would have felt more in keeping with the righteous indignation and consideration to the victims. Even if you could argue seeing this is necessary to understand, do we need to see dozens of victims?
An unintentional connection I made with the documentary was with the promoters, who definitely come across as negligent and defensive. Lang and Schuer are combative early in the archival footage, jostling with journalists asking pertinent and critical questions about the failures of the festival as they are happening. These two old men, who misread the nostalgia the ’99 crowd had for their own Boomer culture, point the finger of blame at anyone else. To them, it’s MTV’s fault because their coverage made the festival look like a hellish nightmare. To them, it’s the band’s fault for not decompressing audience anger. To them, it’s the fault of the women for being groped and abused. To them, it’s the fault of the security team for not upholding order, never mind that these people only had to pass a three-hour course where they were given the answers for. To them, it’s everyone’s fault but their own, and this dismissive scapegoating reminds me, in many ways, of President Donald Trump and his own complaints about media coverage. For the former president, it’s not his cruel and inept policies that were bad, it was merely the skewered media coverage and thus the media was to blame. Hey, if Woodstock ’99 interview subjects are going to make sweeping cultural statements, then why not me too?
The Woodstock ’99 documentary is a fascinating train wreck to relive with some questionable artistic decisions that can distract or mitigate its power and entertainment value. It’s a definitive look at a disaster of an attempt to recapture something that was ineffable and unattainable. I don’t believe there’s a larger lesson to be learned, beyond criticisms of capitalism and poor planning. It’s hard to watch at times, infuriating at others, and deserving of scorn and eye-rolls. There hasn’t been an attempted Woodstock festival since 1999 and it’s time to let it go.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m close to finishing the documentary My Octopus Teacher and felt the urge to already begin typing out my thoughts, something I rarely do as I prefer to marinate over movies, let alone waiting for them to conclude. This Oscar-winning documentary wasn’t even part of Netflix’s critics screeners they sent me in the mail to consider for the top documentary prize, which tells me even its home didn’t have the highest of hopes for the true story of one man’s relationship to a mollusk. As it steamrolled through the awards season, my curiosity grew, and I finally took the plunge and watched the movie within hours of it being declared the finest documentary of the year by the Academy. As you can likely guess from the fact that the movie is still ongoing while I write, I may disagree with the Academy’s choice. My Octopus Teacher is a beautiful looking movie with some larger messages about our connections to nature and conservation, but the entire time I kept looking around and thinking, “There has to be more to this, right?” Alas, this is the story about one man and the octopus that won his heart, as told by that man, and that is it.
Craig Foster was a depressed nature photographer who was feeling lost. He would dive into the icy waters off the South African coast to reconnect with his childhood. He discovers a peculiar octopus and follows her movements, studying her for months, and earning the trust of the creature. Craig learns about himself and his view of nature through this fortuitous undersea bond.
This is literally the story about one man explaining, without interruption, his life lessons he has learned through his yearlong relationship with an octopus, and I just couldn’t fully engage with this on an emotional or intellectual level. The underwater photography is stunning and gorgeous to watch, as would many high-gloss nature documentaries covering the same environment. Watching the octopus hunt, hide from predators, camouflage, contort itself, and even seemingly walk on its tentacles is fun to watch, and nature has plenty of weird specimens to discover and analyze. I’m on board with re-examining the depths of our understanding with some of the weirdest creatures doing their thing thanks to millions of years of evolution. However, where the movie left me wanting is that it is, one hundred percent, one guy talking to the camera and explaining his observations about one nifty octopus and what he has learned from these experiences. The scope of the movie is so minor that it feels less a film and more like a filmed nature article, a little colorful expose that your local news might play to close out its programming. I found the movie to be too slight and unvarying in its information and delivery.
Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon at heart but I kept thinking that Craig Foster was projecting a lot of emotions onto this octopus. I believe this creature meant something special to him, and he became familiar enough that the octopus saw him less as a threat and more as a… what? Does this octopus really see this man in a snorkel as a friend or an ally? She reaches out a tentacle to touch the appendage of this underwater man, but what does that mean? Is this signaling a friendship or is it merely signaling an animal taking stock of its surroundings? I don’t know and depending upon your personal relationship with the animal world, you will either accept everything Craig says at face value without skepticism or you will see him as a slightly foolish romantic.
The movie’s gentle and empathetic nature is unbroken, though I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought about the extremes of where this man/octopus relationship could lead. I wondered if Craig was going to declare that he and this octopus were getting married, he was leaving his wife, and that no one could compare to the touch of her tentacles. I don’t mean to sound cruel or dismissive about this man’s emotional experiences. This shared bond clearly touched this man and allowed him to realign his relationship with nature. He even says he feels like a better man and father thanks to these experiences. I’m happy that Craig found that kind of epiphany and direction in his life, and his story has fun details that made me agree that octopuses can be strangely fascinating creatures. However, that doesn’t mean I needed an 85-minute documentary about the guy more or less debriefing to the camera about his year of journaling. It’s just not that grabbing of a subject to satisfy a feature-length documentary. I don’t feel like I gained anything monumentally more from this movie being 85 minutes than I did if it was 25 minutes.
I may watch My Octopus Teacher again and give it another chance (for those wanting to know, it’s since concluded as I compose this review). It beat out serious competition in a year that had some seriously excellent documentaries (Collective and Dick Johnson is Dead both made my Top Ten of 2020). I’m happy so many people seem to be moved by this man’s personal tale of his magical bond with an eight-armed buddy. I was left mostly indifferent. The photography and plenty of the exclusive video captured is interesting to watch, but there’s little separating My Octopus Teacher from a viral clip you’d see forwarded to you from an animal blog. You can find plenty worse movies out there but I guess what makes this movie so special is just lost on me.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I already know the idea of watching a Romanian documentary is going to be a challenge for many, and that’s before I mention its core subject of government reforms, but this really is one of the best films of the year and worth your valuable time. Collective begins with a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics catching fire at a club in 2015 (the title of the film), and from there the aftermath leads to journalists uncovering mismanaged hospitals, corrupt government officials, cozy relationships between big business and the mob, and preventable calamities. Collective is at turns fascinating, horrifying, dispiriting, aggravating, and always passionately compelling as a document of real-world journalism at the highest stages of moral righteousness.
I’m surprised that the filmmakers managed to get such extraordinary access during such a tumultuous time. This is not a documentary where the experts talk to the camera with the distance of time, where the leading players recount their perspectives and contributions. You’re side-by-side with them in the moment as the news is being broken and challenged. It’s am amazing example of being at the right place and the right time, and then midway through the filmmakers get even more critical access. The health minister is forced to resign and a new, younger one is appointed in his stead. Vlad Voiculescu is determined to learn why mistakes have happened and to correct them. He’s uncovering just how deep the rot goes in the layers of Romanian governmental bureaucracy, and he’s invited the Collective cameras to follow him and his staff. He really seemed determined to make lasting change, and their conversations have a deep-sigh quality of realizing how normalized corruption has become. Going back and forth between the journalists uncovering the broadening extent of the corruption, and the government health officials trying to enact meaningful reforms and regulations, it’s like a good movie just reached greatness and you have the privilege to watch different sides of the crusade.
I thought the movie was initially going to be about the fire at the Collective club but it keeps transforming and metastasizing into something bigger and more damning. Early on, there is footage from within the club that terrible night and it is horrifying. We already know the fire and ensuing panic to escape lead to 27 people dying. The initial stunned reactions build and build as the fire spreads, covering the ceiling like a glowing blanket of death. It’s one of the scariest moments of footage I’ve ever seen. People died because the fire exits didn’t exist, because there was no system of safety inspections. The fire, very metaphorically, starts small but will become something far more widespread. The survivors of the fire should have been protected by the nation’s hospitals and medical care, and yet so many more died because of the consequences of corruption. The journalist team uncovers dilution of disinfectants, meaning the hospitals are awash in powerfully resistant bacteria. The hospital managers claimed otherwise and the initial minister of health pushes back, saying these same managers tested their disinfectants and they were up to code. From there it just grows and grows, as more people in the nation’s hospital system come forward to confess abuses and coverups and kickbacks to a thriving mob presence. There are suicides that sure look like murders later in this movie and I was not expecting that from its opening.
The filmmaking is very forceful without being strident, very political without being preachy, and it’s always moving forward even when it’s constantly looking at the faults of the past. Director Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters, The Prince of Nothingwood) lets the story and events do the talking, and we never break from the verité approach. A person is never directly talking to the camera, there are never any info-graphics or visual inserts. The editing is precise, and every scene gives you exactly what you need, though sometimes it might take a little while to understand the full context of the scene and the leap in time from the prior scene. The movie is 110 minutes and it feels like it’s sprinting because there is so much to cover. It doesn’t make the movie feel like it’s spread too thin, or we’re missing important deliberation and context, but it does require a viewer to stay more active to jump from moment to moment. Those 110 minutes are a clear indictment and examination on corruption and government negligence, but it lets the totality of the details and the horrors convey its message rather than overt appeals.
It’s in the concluding ten minutes that perhaps Collective reaches its most depressing and most damning point (there will be spoilers going forward with this paragraph). For the second half of the film, we’ve been following our crusading new health minister try and shake up a corrupt system and install real reforms that will improve the lives of the Romanian citizens. It’s inspiring and makes you go, “Ah, at least there are still good men in the world capable of enacting good when they are summoned to a level of power and authority.” It looks like he’s actually making real changes because there are many forces pushing against his dismantling of the status quo. Those that benefit from the graft and corruption of the old system, including criminal elements deeply entwined in the country’s infrastructure, push back through their media allies, and broadcasting personalities start questioning whether the health minister is being controlled by foreign influence. It’s familiar to those who have watched the outer reaches of conservative media over the past few decades (Romania’s own Fox News?), and it’s the same kind of slimy, nationalistic, and xenophobic rhetoric meant to alarm and distract. An election is looming in the coming weeks and our new health minister says the regulations can only be implemented if his party, the Socialist Democrats, retain power. Then they don’t. They lose by a lot. Like a historical loss. It was 2016, where nationalistic, anti-immigration forces swept into government across the world, and Collective ends on the depressing note without any silver lining of resolution. The hospital appoints a manager who is “legally unable to manage a hospital.” Just like that, all the hard work to break free from the intransigence has ended in a historical rebuke of the party literally trying to preserve life (“Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown”).
Collective is an inspiring, crushing, and compelling document of corruption, incompetence, and the difficulty of trying to turn around a system too content on not doing more. The journalistic access is stunning and the movie is quietly powerful as we follow diligent politicians and reporters putting in the hard work of trying to make a difference and expose rampant maleficence. By the end, the good guys have taken some significant lumps, though I’ve since read that Vlad is back in the Romanian government again as the minister of health. What does this say about the crusaders for reform? To me, it says it’s a lot easier to go backwards once any reform is met with opposition from those who stand to benefit from a broken system continuing to remain broken. It’s all too easy to fall back on the status quo even when it’s deeply problematic because it’s “what the people know,” but that doesn’t make it good. Change is a powerful force, but it’s still worth fighting for, even if powerful forces of the world manage to unfairly delay that change. Collective is a movie everyone should watch if they want to become a journalist or work in government, and it should be on a shortlist of 2020 films to see for everyone else too.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.
First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.
The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.
The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.
The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The sports documentary Red Penguins starts off as a fun, so-crazy-you-can’t-believe-it tale of larger-than-life characters mucking it up in post-Soviet Russia and having a ball without oversight. It begins slight and light, though entertaining, briskly jumping from bizarre anecdote after anecdote of the Russian hockey club that was controlled by the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group (and co-owner Michael J. Fox). Steven Warshaw was a young, extroverted go-getter and tasked with overseeing the American-Russian operation and he was a natural salesman and born showman, using events like free beer and strippers on the ice to build a popular following with the Moscow fandom. At one point, Michael Eisner and Disney were highly interested in getting involved with all of the possibilities of the larger Disney empire. The first half of the movie is zipping from crazy stories about how wild the Penguins could get, at one point having circus bears perform on the ice. However, the movie transforms into something darker, more meaningful, and very ominous that explores how the Russia of today became what it is in the wake of chaos following the Soviet dissolution. In the early 1990s, millions were adjusting to abrupt free-market capitalism with no thoughtful transition from 80 yeas of life under communism. The police forces were ineffective when present, the food lines grew longer over scraps, and many were grappling with what to do next. The country wasn’t ready and in the ensuing chaos the system of authority shifted from the state to the mob. The Russian mafia became the banks for millions, including those within the government, and their influence seeped into politics and established an echelon of entrenched oligarchs. The good times of the Penguins got much more serious when their success drew the attention of criminal elements wanting in on the profits. Multiple people attached to the team and assembled media were murdered, and the Americans realized it was time to cut ties and get out. The film by writer/director Gabe Polsky serves as an almost sequel to his 2014 Red Army documenting the decades of dominance from Soviet hockey players. His interview subjects can provide colorful details with the anecdotes, but when the film makes its tonal evolution, those same red-faced, churlish Russians take on a more distressing stance. They justify the rampant graft, corruption, and violence in a flippant “that’s the cost of doing business” sort of fatalistic moralizing. It’s an intriguing process to see the dark contours of interview subjects who beforehand had been portrayed an amiable oddballs. Red Penguins is a cut above the average ESPN 30 For 30 sports documentary when it reaches beyond the crazy headlines to address the costs of runaway good times and how one rowdy hockey team could serve as a symbol for an entire country’s descent.
Nate’s Grade: B
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
It feels like a tale ready made for a fun yet frightening examination, a New Jersey theme park famous for its dangerous and indeed killer attractions. Action Park, which operated out of Vernon from 1978 until 1996, was known for its poorly designed water and motor rides for thrill-seekers, often under the guide of going higher, faster, and being cooler. The documentary Class Action Park explores the park’s beginnings, a brainchild from disgraced Wall Street traders, and its heyday fondly remembered by many in a shared survivor’s bond. I was worried the movie was going to glorify the park and its rickety rides as some sort of macho “kids today are wimps and not like us” sort of generational braggadocio. I was worried the documentary would consist of a nostalgic ode to a dangerous theme park that would never be allowed to operate as it did today. And to some extent, Class Action Park does revel in the bizarre reality of its dangerous ride designs, apathetic teenagers given managerial and lifeguard power, and an owner who would simply refuse to pay any fines or punishments and freeze out the authorities. There is grand morbid curiosity as the film dissects different rides and explains, with the help of crude animation, why they would not work and could cause potential grievous injury. Dirty rivers filled with snakes, malfunctioning equipment, and ride designs that didn’t account for gravity and traction and other important physics. These jaunty, nostalgia-filled moments contrast sharply with the more somber tone the film is less successful achieving when it examines the human cost of the park. Over its tenure, six people are known to have died at the park, from drowning to electrocution to brain trauma. The movie doesn’t earn its somber reflection and doesn’t feel like the tones ever mesh. The interview subjects can also be pretty lackluster. Adults recalling childhood memories seems rife for reaching and generalization. The people who mattered most in this story don’t seem to be featured on camera, so instead we have a lot of people opining about a dead amusement park who went there many decades ago and still sing its virtues even while acknowledging its many flaws and safety violations. The movie never really digs deeper, asking the interview subjects what is the cost, what are the lessons of Action Park, and the entire enterprise feels too un-probing and superficial. Even the visuals can be pretty stale, like simply using cut-out newspaper clipping headlines repeatedly for insert shots. The subject has definite appeal for a documentary. This park is crazy. Unfortunately, Class Action Park only skims the surface and misses out on more engaging revelations about our collective love affair for danger at the expense of common sense.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Over 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as of this writing. We here in the U.S. are four percent of the world’s population and yet account for twenty-percent of the world’s deaths. I lament that this number will only go higher over the next many months of the pandemic that has defined 2020. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger conducted interviews around the world with special cameras and protective measures to complete the first major documentary on the coronavirus outbreak. Totally Under Control (title taken directly from Trump’s early February response to COVID-19) is their collaborative effort, and it’s both a timely work of criticism and destined to be inevitably out-of-date in short order.
Given the constant deluge of news about the by-the-minute Trump administration mistakes and questionable calls, the question for a documentary like Totally Under Control is whether or not it provides more insights than simply keeping up with the shocking and dispiriting headlines. I would argue that Gibney’s first pass at recounting our still-living history of calamity offers the benefit of hindsight but also an immediacy or urgency, considering we are still months away from a presumable vaccine. The movie feels like what the first part of the COVID-19 mini-series would cover, focusing on those first few critical months of bungled government response from January to April. The abbreviated focus allows Gibney and his crew to zero in on what the early mistakes were and how we have been paying for them ever since. The collapsed time also allows for more get-able interview subjects, people who might not currently be serving in the administration who feel comfortable or compelled to go on the record with their accounts. There are some great interview subjects here that were plugged in from the beginning, sounding the alarm, and who can give the public a clear understanding of just how woefully equipped a deeply un-serious administration was to handle the most serious public health crisis in a century.
One of the more aggravating tragedies is that many of the thousands of COVID deaths could have been prevented if better steps had been taken early to contain its spread. Naturally, there’s always going to be clearer reflection when looking back on mistakes of the past, not knowing at the time that they were mistakes, but the Trump administration made a political calculus that would only exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus. Early on, the Trump administration’s guiding principle seemed to amount to stripping away anything and everything that the Obama administration had accomplished. It didn’t matter what it was, if Obama had built it, then Trump was motivated to tear it down. This included the pandemic response task force in 2018. This included ignoring the 70-page pandemic response playbook left behind. So when the early warnings appeared in December and January, the United States was already playing from behind. We could have been preparing with amping up production for necessary medical supplies and installing the infrastructure for a robust testing and tracing program; however, this all came into conflict with the other major political calculus that governed all of Trump’s decision-making. His mantra heading into 2020 and re-election was, simply, “Do no harm… to the economy.” Rather than take preventative measures or treat the virus as a danger, the Trump political apparatus was afraid acknowledging the threat so it would not spook the financial markets, a source of bragging for Trump to tout why the American people should re-elect him. When the CDC briefed government officials and media with updated predictions of normal life being uprooted, the markets responded negatively, and Trump fumed. From there, decisions were less about stopping the coronavirus and more about making everything appear like it was no big deal.
Totally Under Control keeps a running calendar of events to compare the U.S. response to South Korea, two countries that had their first official COVID infection on the same day. The Korean government had already taken preventative measures after the 2015 MERS scare to be ready if another frightening new contagion emerged. The politicians left the science to the scientists and followed their recommendations. The Korean people wore masks and were diligent about simple safety measures to stay safe. They had a system of contact tracing already installed. These moves are in sharp contrast to the American response, and while there would be some cultural roadblocks for Americans who consider themselves rugged individuals to submit themselves to a big data-harvesting consortium that contact tracing requires, we could have done so much better. In 1918, people wore masks because it made a real difference and saved lives. They took the Spanish flu epidemic seriously and they had fewer networks of knowledge at their disposal. Today, sadly, wearing a mask has become a political symbol and for many not wearing a mask has become a proud yet misguided act of defiance. Masks show consideration. Masks have been said to be even more effective at thwarting coronavirus spread than a vaccine. Masks work. The rest of the world, and South Korea, have showed what happens when you trust scientific recommendations. South Korea has less than 500 total COVID-19 deaths with a population of 52 million. Even if you multiply that figure by a generous seven to match the current U.S. population, that’s still only an estimated 3,500 total COVID-19 deaths during the same period.
The level of ineptitude is highlighted by two key interview subjects. Rick Bright was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) from 2016 to 2020. He filed a whistle-blower complaint about the Trump administration applying undue pressure to approve hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment that showed no signs of helping COVID patients. There was no medical reason to eliminate safeguards and protocols but the administration wanted a ready-to-market cure, and Bright was horrified that they wanted to make it widely available and over the counter, which would surely lead a panicked populace to request it and endanger their health. Recounting his experiences even brings Bright to tears as he recounts the disregard for safety and dereliction of duty of these political appointees dictating science. He’s a sobering and thoughtful voice to have in the documentary and also one of the biggest names of someone who worked inside the Trump response team. Another intriguing subject is Max Kennedy, who served on Jared Kushner’s White House supply chain task force. Kennedy thought he was going to be running errands or support tasks for the task force. He didn’t realize he and the other volunteers would be the entire task force. They were left to their personal laptops and emails to cold-call companies and perform Google searches to find personal protection equipment (PPE). They had no experience, no coordination with other government bodies, and they were competing against the federal government for the exact same dwindling supplies. Kennedy is breaking the NDA he was forced to sign to reveal the full extent of the chaos and inadequacy that Kushner’s “expertise” brought installing a solution to a very real problem. Kennedy and Bright’s first-hand insider accounts are both harrowing and maddening.
When it appeared that the Trump administration wasn’t going to be able to contain COVID-19, that’s when they pivoted to shifting blame and responsibility onto the states. The Trump administration could have authorized the Defense Production Act to force companies to begin manufacturing very needed PPE, but they didn’t. They thought, as conservative dogma has preached for decades, that government is the problem and the private market will solve it all. The problem with this line of thinking is that there are certain powers the states do not have in comparison to the federal government. State governments cannot run past their budgets. State governments do not have the power to set up a national system of testing. State governments were forced into a 50-way fight for supplies and were vulnerable to capitalistic gouging. The states were then also competing with the federal government, which was driving up the bids for these supplies and then overpaying for the same supplies by many times over their cost. The states were left on their own to duke it out and any slip-ups or shortages were disparaged from afar by a Trump administration that wanted to look in charge but didn’t want the responsibility.
Totally Under Control is an essential documentary for our times but it also can’t help but feel like the beginning of an even bigger and more excoriating story. It’s frustratingly incomplete. It’s the opening chapter of the examination on the U.S. response to the coronavirus, and this story will likely only get more depressing and infuriating as the death toll rises and the regret of “what could have been” grows even more pressing with every week. Gibney and his fellow directors keep their movie pretty straightforward and efficient, and there is something powerful about putting all the relevant facts together into an easy to understand timeline and seeing all the dots connected. Gibney has always been blessed at his ability to artfully articulate a big picture with his films. Totally Under Control is a useful artifact for history and a denunciation of the early days when so much could have been so different if the United States had leaders that trusted science, didn’t dismantle key government bodies, took responsibility when the moment called upon rather than ducking leadership, and cared about more than their personal finances and standing. It’s only going to get worse from here, especially once we fully analyze all the important steps not taken.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Seriously, if it was an even year, you could expect a D’Souza doc to have a slot already in preparation on my list. Not even Friedberg and Seltzer have that many dishonorable mentions. He rose to fame as the “reasonable critic” of President Obama but if you watched his films, you’d know D’Souza’s assertions were anything but reasonable. As I concluded with 2018’s Death of a Nation: “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 led 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.” That is why, dear reader, I think it is finally time for me to step away from the trough of righteous outrage and be done with the disingenuous D’Souza as a filmmaker deserving of even one iota of passing thought. I can only hope with the 2020 election on the near horizon, that America will likewise put to bed the man in the Oval Office and, by extension, D’Souza’s relevancy. But let’s dive in, one last time America, into the bad faith arguments, armchair psychology, racist projection, historical revisionism, crippling persecution complex, fear mongering, and endless shots of D’Souza wandering the sights while looking so contemplative with pursed-lipped, faux concern. It’s Trump Card, one of the worst films of 2020, and hopefully the last D’Souza film for me for the remainder of my days.
I think the opening scene is fittingly indicative of D’Souza’s blatantly fraudulent arguments and willful ignorance. It’s a recreation of an interrogation from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is an interesting choice here considering he was a journalist (strike one), liberal author (strike two) and anti-fascist (strike three), but the general associations of the novel are so ingrained that it becomes a stand-in for any sort of Big Brother state critique. Orwell’s classic story follows an authoritarian government that tells people what to think, to not trust their eyes and ears but simply the proclamations of the State. Where D’Souza goes amazingly off the rails is when he tries to purport that it’s the Democrats who are the evil Big Brother at work trying to brainwash good, honest, God-loving Trump voters into turning against objective reality and swallowing the lies of Dear Leader. Just contemplate that appraisal. In the face of Donald Trump, a man who LITERALLY told his supporters not to listen to their eyes and ears and only to him, a man who has been documented lying over 20,000 times since coming into office, including such obvious and absurd statements like having the biggest inaugural crowd in 2017 or whether it was raining, a man who constantly distorts reality to his petty whims, and D’Souza says it’s really the Democrats who are the dangerous brainwashers. This staggering misreading of Orwell’s political commentary would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and facetious. This telling anecdote perfectly sums up the lazy rhetoric of D’Souza.
It’s hard not to wonder what the larger thesis is here. D’Souza has never exactly been a filmmaker of scholarly heft but his prior films at least presented a through line to hold onto. I thought Trump Card was going to be a conservative case against socialism but D’Souza can’t fully commit 90 minutes to that cause, and so the movie becomes yet another slipshod attack on any and all familiar targets of conservative agita. We’re told socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and through selective examples it’s reconfirmed. Never mind the socialism of Scandinavia, let’s focus on the failed state of Venezuela while ignoring its history of colonialism. We’re told Democrats hate all capitalism, but D’Souza once again conflates free market capitalism and crony capitalism, a sociopathic system unchecked by regulation and rampant with corruption and abuse. We’re told that China is bad, though they’ve introduced features of capitalism so now they’re maybe not as bad, but they gave us COVID19, so they’re still bad, I guess. We’re told the protesters of Hong Kong who want transparency, reforms, and democracy are good, but Black Lives Matters is a cesspool of “thugs” and anarchists without a just cause of reform. We’re told “antifa” didn’t oppose Nazis in Germany but the “center-left,” which makes no sense whatsoever. We’re told Democrats can’t get enough of late-term abortion, when that’s not even a thing. We’re told climate change can’t be that big of a deal because Joe Biden has a beach house so, ergo, he must not worry about rising coastlines. We’re told that the early response to COVID19 was a failure of socialism, when it was the federal government’s cowardly and calculated hands-off approach that turned the purchase and distribution of life-saving medical supplies into a feeding frenzy of capitalistic excess, pitting state against state for scraps.
Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Donald Trump is a neon orange symbol for the farcical excess of crony capitalism.
One of the weirder detours is when D’Souza decries “identity politics” when he’s been steeped in this stuff since his first movie. He lambastes Democrats for, essentially, having an inclusive voting base with diverse interests. Republicans like to still cling to the idea of their party being a “big tent,” but from a demographic standpoint, they are shrinking and only gotten whiter, older, and more male. It’s more the party of one very specific kind of America. Some of D’Souza’s taunts are simply snide and juvenile, like deriding young people for “their pronouns” and the idea of being gay now becoming “an ideology” (you know, like being heterosexual is an “ideology”). In one breath D’Souza doesn’t want “identity to define anyone” but ignores that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality rejecting any contrary thinking. Their 2020 party platform was merely one page and amounted to: “Whatever Trump says.” Choosing not to recognize our natural differences is dishonest. As a white man, my experiences are going to be markedly different than a black woman, and acknowledging this isn’t some sign of weakness or pandering, it’s merely a recognition that our differences are not trivial. It’s similar when people say “I don’t see color” as a misplaced virtuous sign of how liberal-minded they are.
The spurious interview subjects are prone to making wild accusations, aided by D’Souza’s famous leading style where he practically recites the words he wants to hear. A former radical Muslim says he challenges anyone to find a jihadist that would vote for Donald Trump (counterpoint: The Taliban has actually endorsed Trump for 2020). This same man calls Rep. Ilhan Omar as “ISIS in lipstick” without any supporting evidence. The interview subjects are not exactly compelling experts. Why is Isaiah Washington, the man infamously fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using homophobic slurs, an expert on Hollywood oppression? Why is D’Souza’s own daughter and wife, each with a book ready to be peddled, experts on anything? Did D’Souza not have any other relatives he could call on to become instant world affairs experts? Some of these people are well-meaning and with a perspective that merits consideration like a grieving father from the Parkland school shooting, but others are laughable on their face for being included. Larry Sinclair swears he smoked crack and performed oral sex on Obama (“He came back for seconds”), and D’Souza intones that this “allegation” (repeatedly disproven with no evidence) deserves the same level of attention as Stormy Daniels with Trump. Never mind that Trump’s affair wasn’t a scandal because of his moral failing (a thrice-married man known for womanizing) but because of the financial fraud of covering it up before the 2016 election, which sent Trump’s own attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail. Even if the crack-smoking Obama BJ guy is right, and he’s definitely definitely not, who cares if Obama had a gay experience before he was elected president? I guess the association itself is supposed to be unseemly, but it’s D’Souza’s inclusion of such a baseless smear, the unchallenged details of which garners the film its PG-13 rating, as a means to revile this audience and stoke confirmation bias about the mainstream media that’s really unseemly.
D’Souza is all-in on the big kooky Deep State conspiracy to entangle Donald Trump’s presidency, never mind that an impulsive businessman who prefers chaos needs help to falter. I could barely keep up with the barrage of names and dates and accusations, trying to connect the dots with a messy conspiratorial plate of spaghetti. Once they reach the silly Ukraine accusations of impropriety with Joe Biden, the same talking points that the Kremlin parrots, the same groundless stuff that Trump got impeached over in 2019, I started zoning out. D’Souza champions Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos (both pleaded guilty) and Roger Stone (convicted by a jury) as victims of an abusive surveillance state. He lets Papadopoulos and his wife dramatically revise his criminal history, re-imaging himself as a martyr who was forced to speak against Trump by a vindictive FBI. And yet multiple Justice Department and Congressional investigations over the origins of the Russia probe have reaffirmed, repeatedly, conclusively, even when run by Republican Senators, that the FBI investigation was warranted and correct in its conclusions. Donald Trump doesn’t need anyone but himself to get into trouble. No conspiracy is necessary for a perennial screw-up.
I’m all but certain that D’Souza had to radically retool Trump Card as the year progressed. This is the latest any of his election-timed documentaries has ever come out; he usually prefers the cushy position of mid-to-late summer releases. My working theory is that he was heavily planning a documentary about the evils of socialism with a Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for 2020 as its focus on where the Democrats are taking the country. It’s much harder to paint lifelong centrist Joe Biden as a dangerous radical, and it’s equally hard to say the crazy leftwing radicals are taking over the country when they couldn’t even win the party nomination. Then an early trailer for Trump Card over the summer was constituted entirely by footage of rioters, burning buildings, broken windows, and the presumption that D’Souza’s film would focus on the dangers of a growing protest movement that summer. He still gets some hits in but the widespread protests for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have not been the source for civilization being upended. I’m genuinely surprised D’Souza didn’t feature more of the ongoing battles with the unmarked private army sent to harass and beat Portland protesters but that might have harmed his message that Biden will lead to civil unrest when the images of civil unrest are happening live in Donald Trump’s America. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.
Nate’s Grade: F