Filmmaker Peter Jackson has performed a miracle and given voice and life back to the dead. His special effects technicians have taken World War One footage and cleaned it up, slowed the frame rate down, and made it a truly immersive experience that brings out the humanity of those who fought and fell. You see their faces, their movements, and their existence in a way like never before. It’s remarkable to watch the difference in the century-old footage, allowing history to come alive. Jackson also has a running soundtrack of BBC interviews from the 1960s and 70s, where a collage of veterans recounts their experiences from many aspects of the war. It’s wonderful to listen to their personal stories and insights from the men themselves rather than through some recreation or actor’s reading. I could have listened to much more anecdotes from the men who lived them (the last WWI vet died only a few years ago; they’re all wiped away now). There is nothing else to this 99-minute documentary other than the archival footage spiffed up and the synched interviews. Jackson’s documentary focuses on the British experience from jubilant, nationalistic start to weary, haunted conclusion. There is scant new insight into the Great War that a thousand other television specials and documentaries haven’t covered, but it’s the immediacy of the sights and sounds that makes They Shall Not Grow Old compelling. My screening was in 3D and I can’t quite say it was worth it (the projector may have been improperly attuned, or it could just be the limitations of 100-year-old footage). Anyway, this is a must-watch for history buffs but there might not be much for your casual viewer to chew over.
Nate’s Grade: B
Conservative documentary filmmaker, and modern-day snake oil salesman, Dinesh D’Souza is, for all intents and purposes, stuck. His series of “alternative fact” disingenuous documentaries stretching back to 2012 have lambasted a cavalcade of conservative political targets, many of them grossly exaggerated, relying upon a core audience of ticket-buyers who were essentially looking for a vaguely academic cover for their crackpot theories that would otherwise bring them scorn at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then in November of 2016 Donald Trump miraculously won the presidency and the Republican Party now controlled both houses of Congress. D’Souza no longer had “anti-colonialist with daddy issues” Obama or “Saul Alinsky demonic disciple” Hillary Clinton to kick around any longer. D’Souza’s last documentary, 2016’s Hillary’s America, barely even touched upon Trump, possibly because even D’Souza thought Trump was not destined to see the Oval Office unless part of a public tour.
D’Souza used to represent the loony fringe, but now a member of that conspiracy-minded, anti-intellectual underbelly has ascended all the way to the presidency. D’Souza’s debased theories aren’t just parroted by the trolls of the Internet any longer, the president now repeats them verbatim. In an unexpected manner, D’Souza had catapulted to being mainstream, and now I don’t think he knows what to do with himself, his platform of agitation against the powers that be trying to reshape the “real America,” and his future as a huckster. With Republicans presently in charge of the government, whom will D’Souza complain is thwarting the “real patriots” (I apologize, I’m going to go through a year’s supply of air quotes with this review, I can already sense it) from making American great again? His latest pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-documentary Death of a Nation portends his struggle (a subtle reference? You be the judge, dear reader).
Donald Trump is president of the United States. This is an inescapable fact. But even with all that executive power he seems to be stymied by the threat of radical liberalism, or so argues D’Souza. The Democrats are aligned with none other than Hitler (oh, we’ll be getting to that claim later) and they are poised to lead this country into ruin. “How do nations die?” D’Souza solemnly intones, as is his custom for his voice over narration. “Tell a lie big enough, and tell it frequently enough, and it will be believed.” Astonishingly, he’s using that old Hitler claim NOT to refer to a president who has, as of this review’s writing, lied over 6,500 times since his 2017 inauguration according to the running record by The Washington Post, a.k.a. “fake news.” Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, D’Souza attempts to recycle a flawed thesis from his other alarmist movies about how the Democratic Party is destroying the foundations of the country, conveniently ignoring their minority status and most of objective reality.
Once again, D’Souza falls back to a crooked mirror of historical distortion in an attempt to defend racism, xenophobia, and general incompetence, this time connected to that of President Trump. For D’Souza, it’s not Trump who is racist, but the Democrats are the real racists. It’s not Trump who is sexist, but the Democrats are the real sexists. He trotted out this “nuh uh” line of defense with Hillary’s America where he shoddily sought to recast 150 years of historical policy to declare the Democrats the real racists. With his new film, D’Souza doubles down on the same flimsy claims that he stripped free of supportive context, you know, like the fact that both parties were racist for decades because your average American just so happened to be racist. D’Souza declares that the party of Lincoln is still the one black voters should be supporting, blithely ignoring more pertinent examples of policy for the last fifty years. D’Souza’s rhetorical contortions are strained to the breaking point and amount to him saying African-Americans should support the GOP because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Woodrow Wilson was racist. What’s the better track record for civil rights, the last 50 years or the middle of the nineteenth century? D’Souza even denies the existence of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” despite the fact that we have LITERAL audio recordings of Nixon and aides discussing this strategy in detail and by name. Too often the only way to believe much of D’Souza’s flaccid arguments is by performing your own homemade lobotomy.
D’Souza ties himself into knots trying to mitigate the racism of our current Commander in Chief, a man who called Nazis “very fine people,” has re-tweeted anti-Semitic tweets, who frequently refers to Hispanic immigrants and asylum-seekers as an “invasion,” refers to African and Caribbean countries as “shit holes,” and consistently goes after African-American critics in much more personal terms, castigating their intelligence, referring to them as “dogs,” and all the things a not-so racist person probably would refrain from doing. “We knew we weren’t electing a choir boy,” D’Souza intones, his feeble attempt to hand wave away all the personal failings and possible criminal activities of the president. It’s the same broad excuse that the White House press office has exhorted, that in electing Trump as president that the voters (never mind it wasn’t a majority of voters) have declared their general apathy to any number of scandals that arise (“Look, the voters made their voice known when they elected Trump and don’t care how many babies he eats on live television…”). You can’t separate the two; you can’t approve the policies but disapprove of the man. You can’t choose to ignore who he fundamentally is, which is likely why D’Souza ignores as much of Trump’s actual words and deeds as possible.
The epitome of D’Souza’s slimy, bad faith arguments, and a fuller picture at the depths he will lower himself, is when he directly declares that Adolf Hitler was really a liberal. Wow. That’s bold. Ignore Hitler’s antisemitism, anti-communist, anti-homosexual actions, castigation of foreigners as evil and stealing work from “real proud Germans,” rescinding of personal liberties, an independent press, and checks and balances, and his general anti-democratic policies, you still have a man whose ideology was built upon white supremacy and a racist belief in genetic superiority. Does that sound more like Bernie Sanders or like Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally where, according to our president, “very fine people” chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and ultimately killed a woman protesting their presence? D’Souza interviews white nationalist/neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, and D’Souza even tries to somehow label him and the “Unite the Right” marchers of Charlottesville as liberals. They are self-described Nazis!
I would ordinarily chalk up D’Souza’s slimy re-litigation of labels as another sign of his moral repugnance and move along, but this is deserving of additional attention. This isn’t just academic. We have a genuine spike in hate crimes targeting Jewish citizens, most recently a Pittsburgh synagogue where a man murdered a dozen under the belief that Jews, with the thanks of conservative boogeyman George Soros, were funding the migrant caravan (“invasion”). This is but one example of a mentally distraught, angry, and dangerous individual resorting to violence having been fed on a stream of twisted lies and racist rhetoric meant to agitate and divide. It was only a month ago that explosives were sent throughout the mail with the attempt to eliminate Trump’s perceived enemies. D’Souza and his ilk are not simply harmless kooks bilking a willing audience in search of some veneer of prestige for its baser inclinations. This stuff is serious now. When elevated to the platform presented through Trump’s presidency, these words can have serious consequences. I’m not applying a one-to-one system of blame, as every person is responsible for his or her own direct actions. However, D’Souza is knowingly stoking fires and accelerating resentment within his core, secluded audience. When D’Souza plays fast and loose with the history around Hitler, at turns mitigating the man’s actions as well as smearing modern-day political figures with the hackiest guilt-by-association tactics, he is doing the work of the white nationalists for them.
It makes it harder to watch and merely criticize Death of a Nation as a work of film. I could critique its poor production values, insistence on including footage of D’Souza walking around important locations and looking forlorn, as well as its corny insistence on stock footage meant to represent a beer ad’s rendition of what constitutes America. I could rightfully complain that once again D’Souza brings things to a halt so he can showcase his wife singing. I could make fun of the stodgy dramatic recreations. I could write an entire essay on the logical fallacy and open insult of comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, let alone smashing their faces together as the key poster art. I could laugh at D’Souza crediting himself as playing some small part for electing Trump. I could complain of D’Souza’s tortured, leaning style with interview subjects, desperately trying to coax them into saying the hidden phrase he’s in search of. The careful way he handles Spencer is bizarre, as if he didn’t want to upset the white nationalists who might buy tickets. The technical merits of this movie are beyond the point, not that there was much merit to them to begin with. It’s all about his fallacious arguments.
A funny thing happened weeks before the release of this movie in the summer of 2018. President Trump officially pardoned Dinesh D’Souza for his federal campaign finance crimes, sparing him a felonious record (though the rub is to accept a pardon one must accept guilt too). Is it possible that this entire film project was conceived as a means of flattering Trump and working forward the possibility of a pardon for its filmmaker? After three movies of disingenuous gambits, I wouldn’t put anything past D’Souza. He is, after all, the same man whose 1995 book declared the end of racism yet he routinely tweets racist missives (try and find some innocent meaning in his reference to Obama as a “grown up Trayvon”). Death of a Nation is what D’Souza plans to do with his mighty megaphone, and it turns out it’s blame others and fall back on the same old bromides for his reactionary base. I’m sure in two more years he’ll be fired up again to warn us all about the dire threat not re-electing Trump will pose to our nation, but hopefully by that time the nation will have tuned him out for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
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