“Twenty-first century political documentary in the united states” By Betsy McLane

Perhaps the perfect testament to the role of cinema in the political sphere, political documentaries offer an interesting insight into modern society and manifest as worthwhile cinematic pieces possessing social value. Social issue films, touching all manner of social phenomena from rights of the marginalised and minorities to those concerned with the environment, are never truly devoid of a political argument. However, this does not qualify all these documentaries as strictly political documentaries; the primary subject matter has to be politics and/or government for the film to be eligible for this category. Considering the dominant status of American film styles and form borne in Hollywood tradition, political documentaries are as much under influence of American cultural trends as other cinematic expressions. Moreover, taking into account the US’ political, economic and military might, one is able to understand the power of sway that American political documentaries wield over a global audience. Despite a flood of new approaches to style and form, the established American narrative focused tradition still dominates documentary making and wider global media form. It is against this backdrop that the author Betsy McLane paints a compelling argument heralding the years between 2000 and 2014 as a “golden age” of the political feature length documentary. In the chapter “Twenty-first century political documentary in the united states”, the author examines the cultural, political, and social trends present in documentary films in the aforementioned period. Key to this review is the analysis of the author’s argument claiming the first fifteen years as the golden age in political documentary making and the validity of this assertion.

McLane’s chapter proceeds from the perspective that the audience turning to documentaries does so out of the perception that government, big media, finance, industry and those who control these are uncaring and corrupt. The feelings of impending apocalypse and cynicism, according to the author, dominate documentary filmmaking and these appeal to the current public sentiment. Consequently, the solution oriented and optimistic documentaries of before are giving way to films that are darker in outlook. Tapping into the general mood of the public, these political documentaries thrive on the apparent betrayal of the American dream, seemingly drawing more crowds due to this. Clearly, it is safe to conclude that the vast majority of the 100 feature length political documentaries that secured critical acclaim since the turn of the century are dependent on exposing of darker facets of American politics.

After the introduction, the Author proceeds by examining a filmmaker in this genre and some of his works. She commends Michael Moore’s role in popularizing political documentaries in mainstream American culture. He achieves this through his use of sensationalism and humour, which manages to capture and politicize a large audience. It is such attributes that McLane credits in propelling Moore to notoriety coupled with the help of good marketing by his publishers. Interestingly, the author notes that the same machinery that Moore abhors facilitates the popularity of his works, citing his differences with major media players who still promote his works. Moreover, the filmmaker endears himself to the public with his average-Joe demeanour and his clever use of mock naiveté to extract information from unsuspecting interviewees. McLane concludes by questioning the ethics of some of Moore’s techniques and branding him as a somewhat callous and self-absorbed questionable documentarian. Despite his questionable documentary ethics, Moore has won best feature documentary (for Fahrenheit 9/11) at the 2003 Academy Awards, underpinning the popularity of his chosen genre. Moreover, this achievement and the particular film’s popularity thrust Moore into the limelight along with the political documentary genre.

The next section of McLane’s chapter delves into documentarians with a non-mainstream approach such as Danny Schechter and Robert Greenwald. Schechter’s journalistic background manifests in his preference of content over cinematic and production value. Furthermore, his use of edited shots, clips and personal on screen narration creates a vivid scattershot feel that servers his message against government control over information regarding war. Contrastingly, Greenwald, as the author notes, is a product of the film industry though he also prefers the scattershot approach. Utilising clever editing, this filmmaker is able to create vivid documentaries that deliver their message to the audience. Of particular note by McLane is the non-mainstream character of these two’s works and the limited theatrical release of Schechter’s WMD and Greenwalds Outfoxed. She acknowledges, though that, despite their quality not meeting theatrical standards, these films enjoyed relative success for films in their genre. Their purposefully crude productions often provide solid take-off points for political criticism.

The author shifts focus to the more investigative and formal techniques of seasoned filmmakers, producer Marc Shmuger and director Alex Gibeny and acknowledges that with their established film industry positions they are capable of higher budget projects. Their collaboration on We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks provides an excellent example of the deep and thought intensive approach of Gibney, and unlike Moore’s on screen active narration, his is that of the invisible voice interviewing and narrating. Further, the technical and artistic style makes his films suitable for the big screen with the author also adding that Gibeny’s exploiting of artistic and cinematic tension draws viewers into what are essentially mystery stories. In concluding this section, McLane draws comparisons between the main players in two whistle blowing events in American history, Julian Assange (WikiLeaks) and Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), pointing out that both instances of exposure of government secrets were aiming at stopping unjust wars. This similarity of intention on the part of the two whistle blowers occurs despite these events being 40 years apart and the differences in technological advancement. Of worthy note is the fact that such incidents of whistle blowing raise doubts, according to McLane, on reliability and right to secrecy of sources, though this hardly affects the appeal of these leaks.

In the following section, the author delves into the image of war portrayed to the American public and with particular focus on documentaries that expose the propaganda behind rallying support for military activities. While citing Pat Tillman’s tragic story as told by bar-Lev in “The Tillman story” McLane details how his death by friendly fire was subject to a cover up. The documentary captures a mothers search for truth and closure; a subject the mainstream audience will definitely want to relate. Turning focus to another method of gaining truth in political documentary making, the author cites Errol Morris’ innovative Interrotron, an interview device he utilises to make the interviewee feel at ease and less guarded. The use of technology in this situation is successful given its evident efficacy in extracting important insights from the experienced Robert McNamara on how the formation of strategies in high level takes place.

Turning her attention to the role of political documentaries in campaigns, McLane notes that many documenters are increasingly attracted to this kind of subject matter. The reasons for this being revelations of numerous election anomalies, and momentous occurrences like the election of America’s first black president and emergence of the first serious female contender (Hillary Clinton) in the presidential race. It is in such events that feature length political documentaries base their content and attract new audiences. McLane captures the power of political films by giving the example of Marshall Curry’s Street Fight that explores political campaigns from the black vs. black  perspective in the Newark, New Jersey 2002 race. Presidential campaigns feature next in the same section with McLane stating the importance of documentaries in explaining alleged and proven voter frauds. The most compelling of this kind of political documentary is Stealing America: Vote by Vote (2008) by Dorothy Fadiman, a piece five years in the making and rigorously scrutinised, resulting in a valid depiction of election malpractice in the US. Enjoying limited theatrical release, mostly on account that the film’s funding was by means of donations, this film was powerful enough to gain the rejection of a top network executive. The executive admitted the viability of the film but was fearful that airing it would land him out of a job due to the charged content targeting the then ruling bush administration. Sticking to campaign related filmmaking; McLane posits that Anglo American males primarily make most films with a direct political content, Fadiman being the exception. Moreover, other political documentaries adopt a historical re-examination perspective that draws parallels between modern American life and that of the past to achieve the desired effect. In concluding this section, the author interrogates a lighter take on American politics through the lenses of Alexandra Pelosi on the trail of the campaign of George W. Bush in Journeys with George (2002). No matter the political leanings of the viewer, this piece manages to endear Bush to the audience. The final section of McLane’s discussion in this chapter focuses on the documentary styling of the right. She take special note of the high box office grossing Obama’s America (2012), a Gerald L. Molen production aiming at painting a grim outlook for a second Obama term.

To conclude this review, it is important to recognize McLane’s ability to capture the American political documentary film scene in almost its entirety from the turn of the millennium to 2014. Noting the increasing influence these documentaries and the people behind them, the author is valid in proclaiming a golden age from this angle. The fact that these films get the attention from the establishment is testament to the power they wield. Further, McLane provides a cohesive narrative that successfully depicts the status of documentary making on the political subject. 

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