It’s been seven long years since writer/director David O. Russell made a movie. He was prolific from 2010-2015, making four movies, which were nominated for a slew of Oscars, especially in multiple acting categories. Three were also nominated for Best Picture and Russell was nominated for Best Director three times as well. It was quite a vaunted run of mainstream and critical success, with devoted actors like Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence eager to sign up for Russell’s quirky ensembles (it helps when both won Oscars playing Russell roles).
It’s natural to want to take some time off after such a busy creative period, but as the years stretched on, and after the Me Too accountability movement, Russell’s on and off-set behavior gathered more scrutiny and rebuke. His volatility had been known, like his screaming fit he had on the 2004 I Heart Huckabees set with Lily Tomlin. Even George Clooney recounts stepping up to Russell’s bully behavior on the set of 1999’s Three Kings (rumor has it Clooney was the one who released the Huckabees footage). On 2013’s American Hustle, Amy Adams said she cried repeatedly from Russell’s bullying and felt intimidated and isolated. Then there were the renewed revelations from Russell’s own niece who had been transitioning and accused Russell of inappropriate touching when it came to her changing body. Russell even admits to this, though he defends his actions by saying he was given tacit permission, or so he says. With all of this controversy and harassment swirling around Russell, it’s a wonder who would want to continue working with this kind of person. I guess as long as he was producing at his peak level, studio execs would excuse his bad behavior and keep funding his ballooning budgets. Well Amsterdam might just be the end of Russell’s star-studded big studio ride.
In 1933 New York, Burt Berendsen (Bale) is a WW1 veteran making ends meet as a doctor who specializes in veteran care. He and his best friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are framed for a murder and on the run, and the only way to clear their good names is to uncover a conspiracy that leads to a possible government coup. Helping the fellas out is Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse who makes art from the shrapnel she recovers from inside war vets, and a wealthy socialite who also happens to be in love with Harold. Together, the three friends bumble their way through danger and mystery and crazy mishaps.
This is a mess of a movie, a waste of its top talent, and an excess of Russell’s excesses. The director has established a certain style since 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, a movie I still to this day genuinely love (it was my top movie for that year). It’s a style that communicates mania, a nervous energy, and it made sense for Silver Linings Playbook as the movie was following a bipolar protagonist given to uncompromising bouts of mania. It makes less sense with each additional movie, but this improv-heavy, experimental, loose sensibility has become the default style for the director, and it feels misapplied. It leads to Russell bombarding his actors with questions or different requests in the moment, keeping them guessing, and actors have gone forward saying they never knew what they were shooting on the day and the shooting never stopped. This indulgence leads to stories that feel like a lot of elements are sloppily thrown together with the undying hope that somehow it will all come together in the end. With Amsterdam, it doesn’t.
It’s not a great sign when I can say that the entire first hour could be jettisoned. There’s little sense of urgency for far too long, and what is presented feels almost comically unrelated, like even Russell can’t believe his silly characters are in real danger. The uneven pacing creates many dead spaces that feel like an awkward improv detour that you wish could have been avoided. We’re introduced to Bert as a drug addict, and then as a World War One veteran helping other veterans with facial scars and wounds, Bert’s relationship with his pal Harold, then their history in France during the war, then their introduction to Valerie and their kinship, then we have a mysterious death that also leads to a secondary love interest, which requires more setting up of the first love interest and her disapproving family, and then we get police investigating and warning about the first death and then a second murder, this time blamed on our characters, and they’re off to clear their names by… reuniting with Valerie and then bumbling through more characters before, finally the movie presents what it’s actually about well after a full hour-to-80 minutes of movie. It is exhausting and feels like a meandering alternative story that was clumsily grafted onto the Business Plot of 1933. The first half of the movie feels like a slipshod screwball comedy, and then once the particulars of a fascist conspiracy to overthrow the president are introduced, it’s like watching Looney Tunes characters try and foil Adolf Hitler. It just does not tonally work.
The Business Plot is a lesser known event in history, glossed over by the fact that the chief perpetrators more or less got away with their insurrectionist planning. They never did succeed in overthrowing FDR and installing their puppet, but they also did not get prosecuted in the end and most of the media dismissed the scheme as hogwash. It’s undetermined how advanced this plot eventually got but a coup was discussed by a consortium of business leaders. It feels like Russell is applying what he learned from 2013’s American Hustle, which introduced a crazy group of fictional criminals and then, in its last hour, explored the real Abscam criminal sting of the 1980s. I can see themes that Russell thinks are still prescient today, like a dark element desiring to overthrow the U.S. government because it didn’t get its way, as well as the collusion of big business in political king-making, seeking shells that will do what their benefactors demand. The problem is the themes behind this scheme are too serious for Russell’s trifling antics. Think about retelling the insurrection on January 6th but for the first hour it’s two bumbling bank robbers who keep finding themselves in the worst possible situations, ending at the U.S. Capitol. If you’re going to treat the rise of fascism, assisted by corporate overlords, as a serious threat, and something relevant for today, then maybe don’t have most of the movie be wacky nonsense.
Russell’s past films have often glided on energy and in-character authenticity, but this one feels so grasping and desperate. When the master plan to reveal the conspiracy and its shadowy participants is throwing together a big veteran’s show, I was reminded of the movies of young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where the solution to any dilemma was to put on a show. Then at one point the literal Nazis are singing loudly in German and are being confronted by our characters and the good patriotic Americans counter by singing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” and I had to stop the movie and just let out a deep sigh. I think Russell was going for the famous reference in Casablanca, also against Nazis, but it just flounders into unintentional comedy, accentuated by the antsy energy that treats it like camp. There are a couple of spots that I laughed out loud, though I doubt that was the intended response, like watching Taylor Swift abruptly run over by a car. The attempts at actual humor are winding and often lead to little, and the characters feel like more of a collection of quirks than firmly established personalities and perspectives to anchor a movie. What does Bert having a false eye add besides something for Bale to fidget with? What does Chris Rock have to do here? What does Anya Taylor-Joy have to do here? Most egregiously, what does John David Washington have to do here? It feels like Russell just wanted a character for Bert to talk to. The screenplay is overstuffed and polluted with all these minor and underwritten characters that could have been better consolidated.
I suppose you can still have fun with Amsterdam and engage with it on a light-hearted level, smiling as you watch the many big stars having a good time messing around with accents, props, and wacky character traits and tics, like a bunch of kids with a dresser of costumes (maybe it is a throwback to those corny Rooney/Garland kids pictures after all). With other Russell movies, I’ve felt invigorated by the energy and artistry, encouraged to sit a little closer and be more attentive of the character turns, and dig into the actors making three-course meals of their roles. With Amsterdam, I felt the desperation to recreate the success of old patterns but the creeping realization that it wasn’t going to materialize. It’s just a big mess of a movie, not without interesting ideas or moments or good acting, but too much feels resoundingly and frustratingly frivolous. You could ditch entire characters, entire subplots, even entire hours of this movie. Amsterdam cost Disney/Fox $80 million dollars, the biggest of Russell’s career, and only earned a pittance, so I think there is a retraction in due order. Begin with not watching Amsterdam yourself.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’ll never understand the pathological obsession people have with Hunter Biden and what may or may not be on his laptop. This fixation on President Biden’s son seems so unshakably quixotic, hoping that with each new murky examination somehow, magically, there will be impropriety and criminality if you only look right. This dogged obsession with, at best, a tertiary figure to the true target of conservative ire reminds me of the crackpot theories concerning Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel who took his own life in 1993. It was ruled a suicide by five investigations, and yet there are still enough people that are unsatisfied with this provable reality and want to see something more nefarious, more suspect, and simply more. Surely Vince Foster must have been assassinated by the Clintons, and especially Hilary, because he knew too much. It’s nonsense but to some it’s the only thing that makes sense. Such is the same with the Hunter Biden laptop, which some have deluded themselves into thinking could have been the difference maker between a President Biden winning by eight million more votes and a second-term for Trump. It’s difficult for the rational mind to fathom how many ordinary voters would truly care about a presidential candidate’s son’s liaisons, especially when that person is a private citizen and not employed in government.
I figured it was only a matter of time before a rapacious conservative media bankrolled a Hunter Biden Laptop Movie, and it seems only natural as Breitbart’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. The movie takes a lot of style and attitude notes from the latter films of Adam McKay, borrowing liberally from the mixture of documentary and cheeky fourth-wall breaking motifs from The Big Short and Vice. I’ll admit it makes for a slightly more entertaining movie, and My Son Hunter wasn’t the complete disaster that I had dreaded. It’s still not a good movie, by far, and its points are leaden and misleading at best and downright false and speculative at worst, but I’d rather watch a conservative movie that attempts to ape better filmmakers. Trying and failing is at least better to watch for 80 minutes than simply preaching to the converted and not even trying.
Hunter Biden (Laurence Fox) is drifting through life, parties, and may be the biggest hindrance to a would-be President Joe Biden (John James). Hunter left his laptop at a repair shop but thankfully the media refuses to cover the story, instead downplaying it as a possible Russian disinformation campaign in the last weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Joe can’t have anything go wrong so close to his possible big victory, but Hunter, at least in this not-at-all biased interpretation, seems like a walking catastrophe waiting for his next landmine.
Before even discussing the filmmaking merits, let’s tackle the chief purpose of this movie, which is to defame Hunter Biden and by association Joe Biden. It’s not exactly breaking news that Hunter Biden has lived a troubled life. The man has been upfront about his own struggles with addiction; he wrote about it openly in his own 2021 memoir. Watching Hunter snort anything within reach, party with hookers, and hang out with lowlifes just feels gratuitous because it’s the same characterization over and over. That’s all the movie covers for its first 30 minutes, Hunter partying with strangers and strippers (but still in a demure way where nobody, even before passing out on the floor, removes their clothes). It feels like we’re wallowing in a man’s degradation and it’s unseemly because the intention is not meant to be empathetic. The target audience watching this won’t likely care about Hunter genuinely getting better as a person. That’s not what this expose is for, trying to better understand his humanity and vulnerability. This is merely a roundabout way to taint Joe Biden, a figure too boring by himself, so the critics have to settle for Hunter and his salacious escapades and work on grimy guilt by association.
I can hear some griping that the movie presents Hunter in a more sympathetic light, at least early, with him recognizing his own screw-up nature but feeling powerless to rise above. He also talks about the grief of losing his mother and sister at such a young age, as well as his older brother in 2015. However, any pretense of humanizing goes out the window once big daddy Joe arrives, and Hunter becomes a sniveling sycophant who shrugs his way through life, not just aware of his nepotistic privilege but fully comfortable with his participation in corruption and graft. Any introspection is abandoned and it makes any prior introspection appear phony. It’s hard to square the Hunter in the beginning who talks about the wounds of losing his mother with the Hunter who complains that his dad never supports his art, complete with cutaway to his finger painting. There’s an entire six-minute stretch where Hunter is lectured to, by his stripper named Kitty (Emma Gojkovic) who just happens to be the estranged child of Christian missionaries, about China’s concentration camps for its Uyghur population, and he stares slack-jawed, as if he hasn’t kept up with the news in years (the reprehensible concentration camps for Muslims have been well-documented by the mainstream media). This Hunter is merely a stand-in for vague political corruption, an irredeemable naif that is only meant to make his father appear worse, and that’s also why now that Republicans have won the House, you’ll see a lot more of Hunter Biden’s name in 2023 because, obviously, investigating his previous business handling as a private citizen is the cure for inflation and higher gas prices.
So what does the movie profess to expose, especially so that had this evil laptop of incriminating evidence been properly adjudicated, then Donald Trump, the most unpopular president in the modern era, would have easily won re-election? It’s a rehashing of what led to Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and he most definitely got that position because of his name, and of course this is the only instance in the history of the world where that has happened before to the scions of the rich and famous. When Jared Kushner, who actually worked in Trump’s White House, was offered over two billion dollars by the Saudi royal family upon leaving his taxpayer-paid position, I’m sure it was completely for his unparalleled expertise on Mid-East diplomacy. Anyway, this Burisma position was already investigated internally by the State Department for conflicts of interest, and the Ukrainian prosecutor that Joe Biden pressured to be removed as VP was not threatening to investigate Hunter. This prosecutor was corrupt and refused to investigate Russian-backed assets; he even refused to investigate Burisma. There was no inappropriate arm-twisting to protect Hunter or Joe Biden, as thoroughly debunked during the 2019 impeachment trial. It’s all pretty established, but that doesn’t matter to its target audience, the same group who keeps desperately re-shaking a disparate collection of incorrect election anecdotes to produce a bigger picture like one of those pesky Magic Eye pictures that only “true American patriots” can properly see.
That’s really the majority of the specific accusations against Hunter. It impugns his associates, like Devon Archer who was sentenced for defrauding a Native American tribe in 2022, but too many of the accusations are broad and reaching, much like the Burisma condemnation. Biden did invest in shares of a Chinese technology company, Face++, as part of a larger portfolio, and China has reportedly used this technology to surveil citizens it’s looking to persecute. This is not great, but I wonder how many other venture capitalists have holdings with connections to other similarly sundry applications, especially with technology. I’m not excusing this, I’m just saying this “a ha!” accusation isn’t quite the deathblow the movies seems to assume. If it was, it wouldn’t need a character to literally explain the context of why this is so damning. The larger accusations of bribery and funneling ill-gotten monies back to daddy Joe are weak too, no matter how many times the movie adds titles to tell us, “This really happened” (but it didn’t). So many of these accusations are like Burisma, where it’s a purposely misconstruing of events and a deliberate ignoring of context or corroborating information that would deter their argument.
Hunter Biden isn’t the world’s greatest businessman by any measure. He’s also not the world’s most infamous criminal who fails to be held accountable because of his cushy connections. Hunter Biden hasn’t even been banned from operating a non-profit in New York state because he used a kids-with-cancer charity like a personal piggy bank (sorry, that was Trump’s children). Let it be known by this self-professed progressive, if Hunter Biden is guilty of a crime then prosecute him. Put him in jail. I don’t care. He doesn’t deserve special treatment. But at the same time, if he’s just a guy with problems, he doesn’t deserve this crazy level of unbridled antipathy.
Following the McKay model, characters will stare directly into the camera for comedic effect, to add additional commentary, like when the movie flatly states, “This is not a true story… except for all the facts.” Of course, the screenwriters have a harder grasp of those stubborn facts. These are the same writers of The Obamagate Movie, which proposes to expose the “Deep State conspiracy to undermine the Trump administration and the fake Russian collusion narrative.” Again, facts are stubborn things, especially when the end of the movie laments when, oh when, will truth matter over lies and the powerful be held responsible for their corrupt actions (were these people just willfully hibernating during the scandal-a-week Donald Trump presidency?). The attempts at humor are often juvenile and stupid, like an opening scene where Hunter has a psychic conversation with a tiny dog while he’s high on drugs, and this is after a cartoon graphic of Hunter’s heart pops onscreen. The jabs against Joe Biden are mostly of the creepy hair-smelling and loony grandpa variety with groan-inducing malapropisms (“Nothing can threaten my erection;” see instead of “election” the dumb man said “erection”). The movie also squeezes in other conservative grievances, like opening with a Black Lives Matter protest and admonishing the media for its portrayal. I think having one of the protesters working as a stripper (to pay off her college loans, she tells us) is meant to be some insult to liberal protestors or even higher education. The same with having a stripper announce her pronouns. Is this the nightmare world the liberals all demand when even the people sleazy men pay to get naked would inform us of their preferred pronouns? I’m surprised they went the entire movie without a trans joke.
I don’t know why Fox (Inspector Lewis, White Lines) would agree to portray Hunter Biden. He doesn’t exactly resemble the man. He looks like a more gaunt version of Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Girls, The Bear). Fox provides the best reason to watch the movie because he’s not acting like he’s in lazy agitprop. Give credit where it’s due, the man gives a dark journey-of-the-soul kind of desperate sheen to this man, that is, until the script just turns him into a shrugging and sulking man-baby. Gina Carano (The Mandalorian) makes a brief appearance as a Secret Service detail to the Bidens, who never missed an opportunity to snidely confide to the camera about how much she loathes these men. John James (Dynasty) doesn’t work as Joe Biden at all, but he seems like he could have been a Sopranos-style goombah goon character reference for Paulie Walnuts. Many of the Eastern European actors who the production utilized from its Serbia filming site seems to have been dubbed over, so I don’t know how much criticism to offer Golkovic as Kitty, the stripper who also happens to be a former lawyer too. She’s a Swiss army knife of uses, including the intended moral uprising the filmmakers would like to believe they can engender.
I’d like to conclude as a reminder why journalists believed that the Hunter Biden laptop story, which broke in the final weeks of the 2020 election, and was teased by none other than Rudy “Hand down my pants” Giuliani, would be met with skepticism. For an election about competency, a national COVID response, and basic human empathy, it seemed awfully strange that Hunter Biden’s name was coming up again so late, and once more from Giuliani, the man who was caught meddling in American diplomacy so that he could strong-arm Ukraine into pushing a sham investigation to slander Joe Biden. It was all just a bit too convenient, and especially when there wasn’t any corroborating evidence at the time, just one business shop’s word that, no for real, this must be Hunter Biden’s legit laptop. In the end, I doubt any voters could have been persuaded by the laptop, and those that were would have voted for Trump already. Nobody cares about Hunter Biden. And nobody should care about this silly and slimy movie trying to make him into the new conservative obsession. Go after Joe Biden for policy reasons, go after him for his age, but his son? In Joe terms, that’s baloney, man.
Nate’s Grade: D
Originally released October 11, 2002:
Documentary filmmaker, political activist and corporate pot-stirrer Michael Moore prefaces his latest film Bowling for Columbine by admitting his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). He even received a marksmanship award as a teenager in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s sprawling and hilarious search for answers among America’s zealous gun culture and alarmingly high number of homicides. It’s the tangents Moore just can’t help but take along the ride that add some of the more fun moments.
He opens a checking account at a Michigan bank that’s offering a gun for new customer accounts. Moore astutely asks an employee, “Do you think it’s a good idea handing out guns in a bank?” Moore travels to Canada to find out what reasons exist that make our cultures so different when it comes to crime. After hearing from citizens about how they don’t lock their doors, Moore decides to go door-to-door and see for himself. Sure enough, he walks into half-a-dozen homes.
Moore is better at pointing the finger than fathoming real answers. He touches media sensationalism, our nation’s bloody history, corporate greed, past military involvement, and an environment of fear being developed by those who profit from such actions. The sobering truth is that there are no easy answers to be debunked. The film’s climax involves an impromptu sit-down with NRA president Charlton Heston. Moore questions the sensitivity of the NRA after it held support rallies days after the school shootings in Littleton and Flint. Heston becomes weary and walks out of the interview after five minutes.
The film demands to be seen. It’s complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. Not only is Bowling for Columbine the most important film of 2002, it’s also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was a junior in high school when the horrific massacre at Columbine happened in April of 1999. I remember the shock that washed over the country. I remember the daze and sorrow. I remember students not coming back to school for days, some because they feared that our Ohio school could be the next site of the next tragedy because of how upending the Columbine school shooting had been for the general sense of security. “How could this happen?’ we solemnly asked. I remember exasperated politicians wringing their hands, grasping for solutions and scapegoats alike, and I most remember just the overall gravity of the whole situation, the sense of loss, and the sense that this meant something significant. Flash forward twenty years, and the Columbine school shootings, which snuffed out 15 lives that fateful morning, is now ranked fifth on the list of deadliest school shootings in the United States, having been gut-wrenchingly eclipsed by the 18 at Parkland in 2018, the 22 in Uvalde in 2022, the 28 in Sandy Hook in 2012, and the 33 in Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then, mass shootings and spree killers have become so common that the satirical news website The Onion keeps recycling the same condemning headline with the latest mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (this damning headline has been repeated 22 times in eight years time, and it’s only a matter of months at most before it gets repeated yet again if history is anything).
After each new tragedy, we’ve been inured to the reality of anything of merit being done in the way of reform; we move from “thoughts and prayers” to, “let’s not politicize this now,” to, “you’ll never solve every problem,” and then finally to a litany of social issues that conveniently are the real culprits, and never the guns mind you, of course. It’s easy to be cynical that, in our current day and age, no gun tragedy will ever move politicians to make real changes. After Sandy Hook, the most watered down of reforms, increasing background checks, was met with stonewalling from Republicans and those funded by the formidable National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby. After 60 people were slaughtered during a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the next hopeful reform was eliminating bump stocks. That didn’t happen. The patterns emerge and become their own tragic parody of performative action masquerading as meaningful action.
When people argue, “Well criminals will just ignore the new laws we pass anyway,” I’m dumbfounded by this logic, as if that is reason enough to cancel all attempts at law and governance. The oft-quoted axiom of a “good guy with a gun” being the only real solution to a “bad guy with a gun” is equally nonsensical to me. If that’s the case, then the rising presence of guns would better police these matters, mitigating their deadliness, and that is definitely not the case. The good guys with the guns aren’t working. The challenge is determining who is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. This reflexive thinking never applies to other tragedies: “The only way to battle a bad drunk driver is with a good drunk driver.” It’s maddening for any citizen genuinely seeking common sense gun reform that’s supported by a far majority of voters.
America’s fixation with our gun culture was already a potent issue in 2002 when political muckraker Michael Moore elevated himself to new commercial and critical heights, and it’s only become even more essential to unpacking twenty years later. Moore had restyled documentary filmmaking with his searing and tragic-comic 1989 Roger and Me, his documentation of the fall of the American auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where my mother grew up, and his search for answers with General Motors’ CEO, Roger B. Smith. Moore put himself front and center in his films, the schlubby everyman trying to hold truth to power, though he himself would have a slippery hold on it as well. Moore directed two more features in the 1990s, The Big One and Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film. But Moore catapulted into a new stratosphere of media attention and derision in the George W. Bush era, first with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, which won him his first Oscar and set doc box-office records, and then in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, which obliterated the box-office records Moore had just set and would have likely won him another Oscar but he refused to submit in Documentary and only wanted to submit for Best Picture (Born into Brothels won that year instead, so thanks I guess).
Bowling for Columbine is an aggravating movie by design and through Moore’s tactics. The issue of guns and violence in America has only become more central to American lives. Moore’s thesis is messy because it’s hard to find a single cause for the root of America’s gun violence, ignoring, of course, the sheer number of guns, though he even says Canada has a high guns-per-resident ratio from their culture of hunting but lacks our murder rate. The section on the media sensationalism driving gun sales is potent, as a nation constantly in fear will reach for protection that is abundant supply and access. As the murder rate has gone down over the 1990s and 2000s, the network news’ reporting over violent crime has increased, as well as gun ownership. It’s a brew of paranoia that benefits politicians, media, and especially gun manufacturers. Gun sales soared once Barack Obama swept into office, not because he said he would take people’s guns, but a section sure trumpeted those fears for monetary gain. The extended anecdote on the mother of the youngest school shooter, a six-year-old, is a powerful indictment on welfare-to-work and a system that forces people into unlivable choices. I wish Moore had touched more upon the mental health aspect of the gun violence equation, as the far majority of gun violence are suicides and not homicides. Many were quick to deduce that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were victims of bullying, but millions are victims of bullying and do not shoot up their schools. In a 2017 TED Talk, Dylan Klebold’s mother, Sue, discussed her personal process of coming to terms with her son’s actions and realizing how essential his desire to die was to his infamous actions. When people make irrational, impassioned, split-second decisions, and guns are readily available, then bad things can be made even worse. Moore doesn’t explore this angle, unfortunately. Some of his larger connections can seem very reaching, like when he tries to say that kids knowing their parents work for Lockheed Martin, a military weapons manufacturer, would be less likely to value human life.
But it’s the needless sleight-of-hand tactics with the truth that confound me with Moore, and these inevitably blunt the power of his message and ability to convert thinkers. This habit infuriates and flabbergasts me. Moore has so many good points already at his disposal, so many meaningful data points and heart-tugging anecdotes that he doesn’t need to stretch the truth to convey his message. I’ve since used Bowling for Columbine as an example in teaching credibility gaps and the concept of ethos with public speaking. This is epitomized in the handling of NRA president Charlton Heston. Shortly after the events of Columbine are replayed for us, including frantic 911 calls and security camera footage, Moore cuts to Heston defiantly declaring, “With my cold dead hands,” and informs the viewer that within ten days that the NRA held their annual conference in Denver, despite pleas from local leaders for distance and sensitivity. “Don’t come here? We’re already here,” Heston replies to applause. The problem is that Moore has stitched together two separate Heston speeches to seem as one, including the “From my cold dead hands” intro, which was given an entire year after the Columbine shooting. He also excludes pertinent details like the fact that the meeting in Denver was scheduled a year in advance, the NRA was required by law to notify all four million of its members ten days before a location change, and all other NRA events were canceled except for the meeting required by corporate law. When you look at the parts of Heston’s speech Moore picked from, anyone could follow the same approach and edit the speech to say whatever message they desired. The climax of the movie is Moore sitting down with Heston, but when he peppers him with questions about his speech days after Columbine, and Heston has no idea what he’s talking about, it’s because Moore isn’t playing fair. Then also take into account the aged actor likely going through the Althzeimer’s that caused him to step down from acting and the NRA in 2002. Look, I’m no fan of the NRA, and I personally believe their self-serving actions perform a genuine harm to the country, but this is just self-righteously badgering an ailing old man.
Moore is not the only documentary filmmaker to make use of selective editing, anecdotal evidence extrapolated, and narrative cheats for manipulative emotional purposes, but when you’re being provocative, you’re going to get push back, and when you use deceitful storytelling methods with your facts, you are a disservice to your cause and your message. There’s so much on this topic that Moore can effectively criticize, like the handy media scapegoats, the failings of zero tolerance and school resource officers, the obvious hypocrisy of do-nothing elected officials, the fear-mongering news seeking out consistent sensationalism, a deference to the military industrial complex, and the fact that the rest of the world watches the same movies, listens to the same music, plays the same violent video games, and yet, to paraphrase The Onion, we’re the only country where this happens all the time. Sadly, no place is safe in the U.S. from a possible mass shooting, and yet a good portion of this country will shrug and say that’s just the price we have to pay for living our freedoms. There are so many fallible arguments to poke apart, and that’s why I’m so frustrated with Moore’s misuse of his platform, giving his opponents the ammunition to dismiss his points.
Moore’s career has fallen quite a bit from his meteoric height in 2002 and 2004, last releasing Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 to warn about the lasting dangers of an inactive voting public and Donald Trump as president (it grossed $6.3 million, approximately five percent of the gargantuan $119 million gross of Fahrenheit 9/11). It feels like Moore’s style, once so revolutionary, prankish, and urgent, has now become stale. As I wrote in 2018: “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?” It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to lose their edge or passion after 30 years. It’s also not uncommon for the envelope-pushers to become part of an establishment that a younger public starts tuning out for lack of relevance. I don’t know if Moore has a real audience any more.
Re-reading my old 2002 review, I’m sure glad I kept a paper copy of each of my published film reviews for my college newspaper because it was the only surviving copy I could find. I could not find my review for Bowling for Columbine on any of the websites and blogs I’ve used over the years, so in 2022, I literally sat with my twenty-year-old newspaper and retyped my relatively brief review from 2002. Thank you, me, for stubbornly holding onto these yellowing papers. I remember being more taken with the film in 2002, so much so that I would brush aside criticisms from my other friends who made valid points about Moore’s larger thesis (they just “didn’t get it,” I’m sure I incredulously scoffed). My apologies, my put-upon and sensible friends.
In the scheme of Moore’s catalog of films, I still think Roger and Me is his finest work and much of this is because it’s the most personal of his movies, chronicling the decline of his hometown with his special access. It’s the one that feels most essential for him to be the face of the movie. Bowling for Columbine is a messy movie but all Moore’s films are scattershot entertainments in retrospect, each deserving of reflection but also outside verification. As a result, the movies never become more than the sum of their parts and floating ideas and interviews and stunts and his loose thesis statements rarely coalesce into anything definitive, like an Alex Gibney documentary. Moore can be hectoring and disingenuous, especially during his interviews, and most of all aggravatingly short-sighted in his techniques, but he is a documentary industry unto himself and with good reason. Bowling for Columbine is the start of a conversation, with many asides both illuminating and diversionary, and it’s still worth watching twenty years later, as gun violence has only gotten worse. I think it’s likely Moore’s third best film, after 2007’s Sicko, but maybe I’ll change my mind in 2027. Until then, I’m lowering the film grade from an A to a B.
Re-Review Grade: B
I swore I would be done with conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza after 2020’s pseudo-documentary Trump Card, just as I also wrote that I was ready to be done with Donald Trump as president, and yet both have persisted and still pose a danger to the general public. Trump had been priming his voters to not trust any election outcome where he lost and now the Big Lie has become fundamental dogma for millions. 2000 Mules is intended to be D’Souza’s smoking gun, his proof that the election was stolen by nefarious Democrats and their cronies taking advantage of making absentee ballots easiest to access during a world-altering pandemic. D’Souza says he has amassed cellular data proving that ballots were stuffed into voting drop boxes, and these “mules” have been “trafficking” votes, and posits that 400,000 votes were invalid and tilted the presidency.
The entire rhetorical argument D’Souza and his co-conspirators have gathered amounts to a lot of, “Yeah, buddy, trust us on this,” when they’ve earned no such faith except for those who are already desperate for confirmation bias. D’Souza has built a lifetime of bad faith arguments, and anyone he brings on board to further his thesis statements is likewise to be dubiously trusted. True The Vote is listed as a “non-profit organization” about “voter integrity” when it’s really looking to restrict access to voting. They made the same baseless accusations after 2016’s election. The movie says we should trust this organization because they even helped solve a cold case murder by tracking cell phone data and contacting the Atlanta bureau of investigations. The problem with this noble claim is that True The Vote contacted Georgia officials two months AFTER they had already indicted two suspects for the 2021 murder of Secoriea Turner. You don’t get credit for solving a cold case that 1) wasn’t cold, and 2) where the police had already solved it. Should I get credit for reporting to the FBI that I know who’s responsible for Ted Bundy’s murders with my own evidence? True The Vote’s executive director, Catherine Engelbrecht, and board member, Gregg Phillips, are listed as executive producers, so I find it especially odd when, confronted by this discrepancy by NPR, Englerecht responded via email that her movie “did not have the benefit of full context.” Well, as an executive producer, and someone featured prominently on camera, would you not have the ability and say to provide that important context and clarity?
D’Souza states, “Bold accusations require bold evidence,” although this has never stopped the man from making documentaries that make the most baseless of accusations and disingenuous conclusions, but 2000 Mules lacks the potency to support its claims. It doesn’t have security footage of people dumping tons of ballots, although D’Souza somehow says the data they do have is even better than video footage (“No no, this Tiger handheld game is way better than any Game Boy, grandson”). It doesn’t have any important testimony from people involved outside of True The Vote with the exception of one “whistleblower” who cannot go into accompanying details and speaks in racist generalities about Mexicans. Just because D’Souza and a few of his friends got together (Sebastian Gorka didn’t bring his Nazi medal) and talk about 400,000 false votes doesn’t make them magically appear from nothing. It’s always worth remembering that D’Souza was a convicted felon for campaign finance fraud before being pardoned by Trump after a movie courting his incalculable ego.
The only thing that D’Souza presents is assorted cellular data points that he wants to infer only nefarious conclusions. The technology for data pings is not that exact, according to several Associated Press reports, which means True The Vote cannot even be certain that these points of data are people dropping off ballots rather than simply standing ten to twenty feet away from the drop boxes. Nor can they tell if these data points aren’t cab drivers, election workers, or people that would frequent the area for work. Nor can they tell if these multiple data points aren’t merely people wearing multiple pieces of technology (phones, watch, tablet, laptops, etc.). The fact that the movie is purporting that it was busy around a space adjacent to a drop box is not exactly bold or revelatory when they were always intended to be placed in busy metro areas for better civic engagement. Never mind that ballot drop boxes have been utilized in Democrat and Republican-run states for decades and are tamper-proof. It’s the flimsiest of evidence blown to massive proportions that breaks down upon the most minimal dollop of intellectual scrutiny, but this is true of every dysfunctional D’Souza political polemic.
However, even if I was the most generous person in the world and took D’Souza’s assertions at face value, and again no human being should ever do this for their own mental and ethical well being, 2000 Mules falls apart because it’s not ever asserting that these ballots are phony. Even if someone was stuffing ballots, each one of these would be verified through a rigorous system of checks. Absentee ballots are tracked via signature and anyone can track their ballot online, which is what I did for my own 2020 absentee ballot. Casting extra ballots is really difficult when everything is finely tracked. One of the references True The Vote made to Georgia officials was investigated and found to be a man dropping off ballots for the rest of his family, completely legal under Georgia law. It is legal in 31 states for someone else to drop off your ballot for you even if they aren’t your family. All of this also assumes that anyone voting absentee would be voting for Biden over Trump, and while more Democratic voters did make use of the absentee process during a pandemic, to just assume absentee equals Democrat and thus equals untrustworthy is an escalating blend of bad faith.
The votes have been counted, recounted, and in some states and counties recounted again and again, and yet Joe Biden still tops Donald Trump by seven million votes and still serves as president. Even if D’Souza’s incredulous account is true, and these people “trafficked ballots,” they would have been easily discovered and larger discrepancies would have been uncovered especially with so many partisans scouring for even the faintest hint of fraud. And yet, the scant cases of 2020 election fraud have been Republican voters trying to vote twice or vote for their relatives, living and dead (the call is coming from inside the house, True The Vote). According to the Associated Press, in the 2020 election there were fewer than 475 potential voter fraud cases in the six battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Michigan (out of a combined 25.5 million votes cast, being approximately .00002%). No matter how many times fraud is claimed, no matter how loud its champions get, it’s never verified in a statistically meaningful way. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported only finding four cases of dead people voting in Georgia, not the “thousands” that Donald Trump swore up and down had wrongly cost him the state. Trump’s own legal team had sixty chances in court to substantiate his claims of widespread voter fraud. It didn’t happen. True The Vote even told the Wisconsin legislature that they aren’t arguing the ballots were illegal, only that the process was somehow abused. So if the votes are legal then should not every legal vote be counted in free and fair elections? Where exactly is the controversy there? The controversy occurs when politicians, and bad actors, try to forge dubious claims about “protecting voting” by providing more obstacles between a voter and a ballot, less so protections after voting.
So in the end, what does D’Souza’s reportedly “explosive” “game-changing” “documentary” actually legitimately prove? It proves how easy misinformed organizations can buy consumer metadata. It proves that there were people around ballot drop boxes in cities. Or it proves that people exist in cities. It proves that D’Souza and his fellow bottom-scraping partisans will keep looking for any fig leaf, no matter how insignificant or made up, to still hold onto their quixotic claim that the 2020 election was stolen. It doesn’t matter that recounts have occurred and confirmed the totals, it doesn’t matter that these recount totals have been confirmed by Republican-led legislatures and committees, it’s become a defacto belief for over half of registered Republicans that the only way Donald Trump, an immensely unpopular president with a lifetime of self-serving bluster, could have lost the 2020 presidential election was because it must have been rigged. Somehow. This new Lost Cause is corrosive and becoming the purity test for Republicans seeking office. That’s why it’s important to rebut obvious falsehoods that undermine the integrity of our elections.
2000 Mules has no real experts, no real smoking guns, no real legitimate evidence beyond purchased cell data it has extrapolated into grossly malicious conclusions. Even by D’Souza’s ridiculously low standards, there just isn’t any merit to his phony points. That’s because this man isn’t formulating a real-world argument. This is an alternate world argument for people living in bubbles of confirmation bias delusion. But that’s always been this man’s audience and he knows it. There’s no persuasive points here to convince anyone outside the circle of election deniers. D’Souza’s round table of pals, including Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager, has Kirk saying, “Millions of Americans know something went wrong, and they have little pieces, and no one’s really put it together.” By the end of the movie, all of D’Souza’s friends have been amazingly convinced from his amazingly unconvincing evidence. Even Gorka says the 2020 election was the “perfect crime” because it “cannot be curated after it’s been committed.” So there you have it, folks. They don’t ever have to prove the fraud because it cannot be proven because it was so perfect, therefore there had to have been fraud all along. 2000 Mules is a deeply un-serious documentary about a serious subject for people willfully ignorant.
Nate’s Grade: F
Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.
Nate’s Grade: B
A scorched Earth satire that flirts with a literal scorched Earth, Don’t Look Up is writer/director Adam McKay’s star-studded condemnation of everything stupid and myopic in media, politics, and pop culture. Jennifer Lawrence plays a doctoral student who discovers a comet heading for direct cataclysmic impact with Earth, and she and her astronomy mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) are trying to sound the alarm but nobody seems to be listening. Not the president (Meryl Streep) and her inept chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill). Not the greedy CEO (Mark Rylance) of a tech company. Not the media where morning TV co-hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are more compelled by music star breakups than pressing science. It makes a person want to stand up and scream about priorities, and that’s McKay’s point, one that will be bludgeoned again and again. This movie is animated with seething rage about the state of the world and the cowardice about facing obvious problems head-on. It’s fit as a climate change allegory but COVID-19 or any scientific crisis could be applied as well. It’s about choosing ignorance and greed, about deferring to our worst instincts, and those in power who profit from inaction. I laughed at several points, some of it good cackling, and the movie is dark to its bitter end. This is the bleakest movie of McKay’s foray into his more sober, activist movie-making (The Big Short, Vice). It’s less Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, exploring the foibles of humans reconciling their last moments of existence, and more Idiocracy, where there is a lone voice of reason and the rest of the population are aggravating morons that refuse to accept reality even if it literally means just looking up with their own eyes. In some ways, the dark laughter the movie inspires is cathartic after years of COVID denials and mask tirades and horse medicine. The satire is bracingly blunt but also one joke on repeat. If you’re the right audience, that one joke will be sufficient. I don’t think the movie quite achieves the poignancy it’s aiming for by the end of its 138 minutes, but the anger is veritably felt. Don’t Look Up wants us to save the world before it’s too late, though the people that need to see the movie the most will be the ones fastest to dismiss it. Still, congrats to McKay for making a movie this depressing and relevant for the holidays.
Nate’s Grade: B+
While the franchise is starting to diminish, there’s still enough blunt power and appeal to the Purge series that I welcome a new addition every few years. Coming at a time of renewed political peril, and where the world of its satire seemed to be indistinguishable from regular headlines, the Purge series for me has gained a renewed relevancy, and while many scoff at how blunt the filmmakers are with their commentary, I say we live in blunt times and sometimes a social sledgehammer is more applicable than a scalpel. Once again, the franchise seems prescient with its premise for The Forever Purge, a band of violent extremists refusing to accept the end of their murder party and thinking that the laws no matter apply to them because they are the real American patriots. There’s a definite perverse pleasure to be had watching these racist goons getting taken out one-by-one by the predominantly Mexican cast of heroes. In a post-Capitol insurrection universe, this movie can be a necessary release for many patriots who view that awful day with risible contempt. The U.S. government, once again under the control by the evil party that introduced the Purge, is now fighting against the white supremacist forces they have riled up and can no longer control for their own benefit. The Canadian and Mexican governments are offering a limited time open border to any American seeking refuge from the chaos and violence of its own government. There’s more heavy use of jump scares with The Forever Purge and the supporting characters and scenarios aren’t given enough attention to stand out or really savor (sadly, there is no Skeletor reappearance). It lacks a strong sense of climax; more so they just ran out of goons to kill. And yet, I appreciate that this movie reminds us how quickly outsized evil can come back when we think we have it vanquished, something to think about in a post-Trump presidency that doesn’t feel very post-anything close enough eight months later. This is probably the weakest movie of the franchise so far but it’s still a serviceable B-movie with enough action and comeuppance to please fans of the anarchic series.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.
Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.
Trial of the Chicago 7: B+
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-
After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Seriously, if it was an even year, you could expect a D’Souza doc to have a slot already in preparation on my list. Not even Friedberg and Seltzer have that many dishonorable mentions. He rose to fame as the “reasonable critic” of President Obama but if you watched his films, you’d know D’Souza’s assertions were anything but reasonable. As I concluded with 2018’s Death of a Nation: “He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have led the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles.” That is why, dear reader, I think it is finally time for me to step away from the trough of righteous outrage and be done with the disingenuous D’Souza as a filmmaker deserving of even one iota of passing thought. I can only hope with the 2020 election on the near horizon, that America will likewise put to bed the man in the Oval Office and, by extension, D’Souza’s relevancy. But let’s dive in, one last time America, into the bad faith arguments, armchair psychology, racist projection, historical revisionism, crippling persecution complex, fear mongering, and endless shots of D’Souza wandering the sights while looking so contemplative with pursed-lipped, faux concern. It’s Trump Card, one of the worst films of 2020, and hopefully the last D’Souza film for me for the remainder of my days.
I think the opening scene is fittingly indicative of D’Souza’s blatantly fraudulent arguments and willful ignorance. It’s a recreation of an interrogation from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is an interesting choice here considering he was a journalist (strike one), liberal author (strike two) and anti-fascist (strike three), but the general associations of the novel are so ingrained that it becomes a stand-in for any sort of Big Brother state critique. Orwell’s classic story follows an authoritarian government that tells people what to think, to not trust their eyes and ears but simply the proclamations of the State. Where D’Souza goes amazingly off the rails is when he tries to purport that it’s the Democrats who are the evil Big Brother at work trying to brainwash good, honest, God-loving Trump voters into turning against objective reality and swallowing the lies of Dear Leader. Just contemplate that appraisal. In the face of Donald Trump, a man who LITERALLY told his supporters not to listen to their eyes and ears and only to him, a man who has been documented lying over 20,000 times since coming into office, including such obvious and absurd statements like having the biggest inaugural crowd in 2017 or whether it was raining, a man who constantly distorts reality to his petty whims, and D’Souza says it’s really the Democrats who are the dangerous brainwashers. This staggering misreading of Orwell’s political commentary would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and facetious. This telling anecdote perfectly sums up the lazy rhetoric of D’Souza.
It’s hard not to wonder what the larger thesis is here. D’Souza has never exactly been a filmmaker of scholarly heft but his prior films at least presented a through line to hold onto. I thought Trump Card was going to be a conservative case against socialism but D’Souza can’t fully commit 90 minutes to that cause, and so the movie becomes yet another slipshod attack on any and all familiar targets of conservative agita. We’re told socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and through selective examples it’s reconfirmed. Never mind the socialism of Scandinavia, let’s focus on the failed state of Venezuela while ignoring its history of colonialism. We’re told Democrats hate all capitalism, but D’Souza once again conflates free market capitalism and crony capitalism, a sociopathic system unchecked by regulation and rampant with corruption and abuse. We’re told that China is bad, though they’ve introduced features of capitalism so now they’re maybe not as bad, but they gave us COVID19, so they’re still bad, I guess. We’re told the protesters of Hong Kong who want transparency, reforms, and democracy are good, but Black Lives Matters is a cesspool of “thugs” and anarchists without a just cause of reform. We’re told “antifa” didn’t oppose Nazis in Germany but the “center-left,” which makes no sense whatsoever. We’re told Democrats can’t get enough of late-term abortion, when that’s not even a thing. We’re told climate change can’t be that big of a deal because Joe Biden has a beach house so, ergo, he must not worry about rising coastlines. We’re told that the early response to COVID19 was a failure of socialism, when it was the federal government’s cowardly and calculated hands-off approach that turned the purchase and distribution of life-saving medical supplies into a feeding frenzy of capitalistic excess, pitting state against state for scraps.
Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Donald Trump is a neon orange symbol for the farcical excess of crony capitalism.
One of the weirder detours is when D’Souza decries “identity politics” when he’s been steeped in this stuff since his first movie. He lambastes Democrats for, essentially, having an inclusive voting base with diverse interests. Republicans like to still cling to the idea of their party being a “big tent,” but from a demographic standpoint, they are shrinking and only gotten whiter, older, and more male. It’s more the party of one very specific kind of America. Some of D’Souza’s taunts are simply snide and juvenile, like deriding young people for “their pronouns” and the idea of being gay now becoming “an ideology” (you know, like being heterosexual is an “ideology”). In one breath D’Souza doesn’t want “identity to define anyone” but ignores that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality rejecting any contrary thinking. Their 2020 party platform was merely one page and amounted to: “Whatever Trump says.” Choosing not to recognize our natural differences is dishonest. As a white man, my experiences are going to be markedly different than a black woman, and acknowledging this isn’t some sign of weakness or pandering, it’s merely a recognition that our differences are not trivial. It’s similar when people say “I don’t see color” as a misplaced virtuous sign of how liberal-minded they are.
The spurious interview subjects are prone to making wild accusations, aided by D’Souza’s famous leading style where he practically recites the words he wants to hear. A former radical Muslim says he challenges anyone to find a jihadist that would vote for Donald Trump (counterpoint: The Taliban has actually endorsed Trump for 2020). This same man calls Rep. Ilhan Omar as “ISIS in lipstick” without any supporting evidence. The interview subjects are not exactly compelling experts. Why is Isaiah Washington, the man infamously fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using homophobic slurs, an expert on Hollywood oppression? Why is D’Souza’s own daughter and wife, each with a book ready to be peddled, experts on anything? Did D’Souza not have any other relatives he could call on to become instant world affairs experts? Some of these people are well-meaning and with a perspective that merits consideration like a grieving father from the Parkland school shooting, but others are laughable on their face for being included. Larry Sinclair swears he smoked crack and performed oral sex on Obama (“He came back for seconds”), and D’Souza intones that this “allegation” (repeatedly disproven with no evidence) deserves the same level of attention as Stormy Daniels with Trump. Never mind that Trump’s affair wasn’t a scandal because of his moral failing (a thrice-married man known for womanizing) but because of the financial fraud of covering it up before the 2016 election, which sent Trump’s own attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail. Even if the crack-smoking Obama BJ guy is right, and he’s definitely definitely not, who cares if Obama had a gay experience before he was elected president? I guess the association itself is supposed to be unseemly, but it’s D’Souza’s inclusion of such a baseless smear, the unchallenged details of which garners the film its PG-13 rating, as a means to revile this audience and stoke confirmation bias about the mainstream media that’s really unseemly.
D’Souza is all-in on the big kooky Deep State conspiracy to entangle Donald Trump’s presidency, never mind that an impulsive businessman who prefers chaos needs help to falter. I could barely keep up with the barrage of names and dates and accusations, trying to connect the dots with a messy conspiratorial plate of spaghetti. Once they reach the silly Ukraine accusations of impropriety with Joe Biden, the same talking points that the Kremlin parrots, the same groundless stuff that Trump got impeached over in 2019, I started zoning out. D’Souza champions Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos (both pleaded guilty) and Roger Stone (convicted by a jury) as victims of an abusive surveillance state. He lets Papadopoulos and his wife dramatically revise his criminal history, re-imaging himself as a martyr who was forced to speak against Trump by a vindictive FBI. And yet multiple Justice Department and Congressional investigations over the origins of the Russia probe have reaffirmed, repeatedly, conclusively, even when run by Republican Senators, that the FBI investigation was warranted and correct in its conclusions. Donald Trump doesn’t need anyone but himself to get into trouble. No conspiracy is necessary for a perennial screw-up.
I’m all but certain that D’Souza had to radically retool Trump Card as the year progressed. This is the latest any of his election-timed documentaries has ever come out; he usually prefers the cushy position of mid-to-late summer releases. My working theory is that he was heavily planning a documentary about the evils of socialism with a Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for 2020 as its focus on where the Democrats are taking the country. It’s much harder to paint lifelong centrist Joe Biden as a dangerous radical, and it’s equally hard to say the crazy leftwing radicals are taking over the country when they couldn’t even win the party nomination. Then an early trailer for Trump Card over the summer was constituted entirely by footage of rioters, burning buildings, broken windows, and the presumption that D’Souza’s film would focus on the dangers of a growing protest movement that summer. He still gets some hits in but the widespread protests for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have not been the source for civilization being upended. I’m genuinely surprised D’Souza didn’t feature more of the ongoing battles with the unmarked private army sent to harass and beat Portland protesters but that might have harmed his message that Biden will lead to civil unrest when the images of civil unrest are happening live in Donald Trump’s America. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.
Nate’s Grade: F