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
Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
We’ve seen this story before, the efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal and its sloppy cover-up from the perspective of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who tirelessly collected clues, followed leads, and investigated the facts. That movie was All The President’s Men and was terrific. This movie is all about Mark Felt, the man who was the “Deep Throat” confidential informant, and it’s a bit less than terrific. It’s hardly even a movie because Felt’s story just isn’t that interesting. The film offers little new insights into Felt as a character or his personal struggles working against his own government. The FBI director is portrayed like a glowering Bond villain. The other characters come in and out, leaving little impact except to remind you that they’re famous. Felt’s personal life is also a bore, including Diane Lane in a thankless role as his alcoholic wife distraught over Felt being passed over as the new FBI director. He also has a missing daughter who ran off to a commune. There’s one moment where Felt feels paranoid and tears apart his office, but then we simply move on. There’s not enough here to justify a full-fledged movie. Whatever writer/director Peter Landesman (Concussion) does it’s not enough to make this story interesting, and that’s because Felt’s involvement in Watergate is minimal at best. All the President’s Men was about journalists uncovering the evidence and putting together the pieces. This movie is just about a guy who knows everything and has to get it out there. It’s inherently less interesting. Even the subtitle of The Man Who Brought Down the White House seems misinformed; I’m fairly certain that was Nixon. The Mark Felt story was told better when he was merely a minimal figure in someone else’s Watergate story. Just watch All the President’s Men instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
Billed as a Trump-era satire, and given the fact that the premise involves a middle-aged, working class Mexican immigrant going head-to-head with a rich, bilious, selfish real estate tycoon who proudly skirts the law, you’d be expecting fireworks. That’s quite a culture clash and writer Mike White (School of Rock) serves up the making of a delicious and squirm-inducing evening as the titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a holistic massage therapist, is marooned at the house of a rich client (Connie Britton). They’re hosting a very famous, very influential business tycoon (John Lithgow), and his demeanor and perspective couldn’t be more opposite from Beatriz. As the night wears on, and the wine is consumed, Beatriz confronts these privileged and oblivious people. The most frustrating part about Beatriz at Dinner is that all the pieces are there for a terrific movie but White’s script goes slack in the second half. The film never really escalates the drama and you keep waiting for more confrontations. I think perhaps I wanted the stage play version of this story, a dialogue-driven debate between two combative characters buoyed by a sense of righteous indignation. Hayek is quite good and reminds you what kind of actress she has at her disposal. Her wounded expressions say volumes. The other problem is that this 85-minute movie ends on a note of baffling nihilism that left me cold. It’s like White threw up his hands and declared that as long as there are powerful men in the world like Trump, with an oversized influence the common man cannot compete with, then why bother trying to heal the world and make it a better place? It’s an abrupt ending and one that doesn’t feel in keeping with the character. I wish someone would take this story and adapt it for the stage and give it the treatment it deserved before White sacrificed all for his fatalistic message about the futility of trying in the Trump era.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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
Miss Sloane is an intelligent and exacting political thriller that should appease fans of the genre who enjoy a good arm-twisting from a powerful manipulator, in this instance the towering and intimidating full force of Jessica Chastain. She plays the titular Sloane, the best lobbyist inside the beltway, and a woman who leaves the comfort of her firm for the challenge of taking on the gun industry to help pass a reform bill. From there it’s an underdog tale powered by the winds of moral righteousness and given a tough-talking yet flawed hero that will burn down whatever she can, including her own reputation, to win. The biggest draw is the performance from Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as she gets to yell at people for approximately two hours and look good doing it. It’s a game of persuasion and leverage and D.C. voter politics, and she makes the constant stream of information accessible while providing a focal point for our interest. It’s a pretty information heavy film with a minimal of supporting characters that stand out (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a school shooting survivor-turned-team member is the notable exception). With her victory never in doubt no matter the odds, the movie establishes that it exists in a parallel world where actual gun control reforms can be advanced. In the wake of doing nothing from Sandy Hook, this must be a fantasy world. Director John Madden (The Debt) keeps the tone as cool and calculated as his heroine. The script by Jonathan Perera is plenty smart though the final act relies upon some unbelievable shenanigans that betray its sense of pragmatic realism. Still, the cunning gamesmanship of a pro working the levers of power for a worthy cause allows for some liberal fantasy indulgence. Miss Sloane is a suitably entertaining thriller that whisks you away and says even “bad people” have a purpose in our broken political system.
Nate’s Grade: B
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
There’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.
The best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.
Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.
This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.
There are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.
Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.
Nate’s Grade: B