Documentary filmmakers want to believe that documentaries can change the world, or at least that they can change opinions and reshape public perception. The reality is as muddled as the very definition of "documentary" itself, which is to say that the wider you expand your net -- Are "60 Minutes" or "Frontline" segments documentaries? -- the more likely you are to find an instance or two of tangible global impact.
But the reality is that for every "Thin Blue Line," which actually sprung an innocent man out of prison, you're looking at hundreds of films like "Fahrenheit 911" or even "Paradise Lost," where the film was meant to change things, but either made things worse or found that a film can only do so much.
The issue is that because documentaries are a niche art form (they shouldn't need to be, because documentaries are awesome), most ideologically inclined documentaries preach to the choir to such a degree that the people with oppositional viewpoints will either never see the docs in the first place, or else will be instantly turned off by unmassaged strident polemics. It's a truly great ideological documentary -- something like "Fog of War" -- that can be persuasive in a manner that offers enlightenment to people on both sides of the aisle. "Fog of War" made $4 million at the domestic box office.
I've had those thoughts before, writing essays on the subject in grad school doc courses, but they really hit home the past couple days, when I watched a pair of preach-to-the-choir Sundance docs, "8: The Mormon Proposition" and "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." Both docs are wildly partisan and, frankly, both espouse themes I agree with completely. One, however, is a solid film, the other is an amateurish mess and neither, alas, has much chance to reach a wide audience and "change the world."
[Brief-ish reviews of "8: The Mormon Proposition" and "Casino Jack" after the break...]
"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" (dir. Alex Gibney) - As a documentarian, Alex Gibney is ridiculously prolific, admirably thorough and reliably intelligent. Sometimes, though, he makes movies that get more invested in a litany of facts and a torrent of information than they do in entertaining.
In "Casino Jack," Gibney tells the story of Jack Abramoff as one piece of a cautionary tale regarding the disgraceful need for campaign finance and lobbying reform in the United States. My favorite of Gibney's films is "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which played as a "Dr. Strangelove"-style dark comedy and cautionary tale because of Gibney's interest in the personalities of the executives involved.
For some reason, Gibney isn't as invested in the personality of Abramoff, despite clear and copious evidence that Jack Abramoff is a strange and fascinating man. So despite the flamboyant title and lead subject, "Casino Jack" is not a personality documentary. It's a process documentary, showing how Abramoff and his cronies pushed money around, peddled influence and basically made a mockery of every sort of half-hearted regulatory system our nation has in place. While key players like Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and Ralph Reed opted not to go on camera, the various politicians implicated in the scandal are well represented. Between people like Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, there's nary an ounce of shame or regret expressed. And why should there be? We seem to be getting further from legislation and court rulings to prevent future Abramoffs, rather than nearer.
Gibney's film does a great job of making its case, but it probably requires that you came in angry in the first place. The revelation that money, rather than the will of the people, steers government isn't exactly revolutionary and Gibney doesn't offer tangible changes. So despite being interested throughout, "Casino Jack" only raised my hackles at the very end, with footage from DeLay's appearance on "Dancing with the Stars." At that point, I felt less peeved at Washington and politics-as-usual than at television networks like NBC and ABC which are subject to federal oversight themselves and yet give reality TV exposure and exoneration to criminals (or alleged criminals) like DeLay and Rod Blagojevich, public servants who violated (or allegedly violated) a social trust.
In any case, Gibney's film, more a detailed presentation than a polemic, already has distribution through Magnolia and will be released in April.
The same cannot be said for...
"8: The Mormon Proposition" (dir. Reed Cowan) - If Gibney is generally angry, Reed Cowan is red-faced, spitting, pitchfork-waving irate and "8: The Mormon Proposition" shows all of the grace and restraint of a velociraptor attacking a bull in a china shop. Cowan is so angry he can't see straight and so angry he can't put together a film that's anything other than sloppily assembled propaganda intended to make you boo at the people on the screen, which is *exactly* what I felt like doing, which isn't in any way the same thing as making a good film.
Mostly, "8: The Mormon Proposition" got its screening space at Sundance because of regional topicality and a receptive Festival audience base. It repeats familiar frustration at Mormon involvement in the passage of California's anti-gay marriage proposition, but does so with utter blinders. Would Proposition 8 have passed in California without the Mormons? Probably not. But the Mormons weren't the only reason Prop 8 passed and Cowan and his team don't have any interest in looking at any kind of complicated answer, one that would force them to examine 52 percent of the California voters voted for the Prop. To watch this film, you'd think that exactly 52 percent of California voters are Mormons. Despite the film's title, Prop 8 is only a starting point anyway. The second half of the movie is detailing the roots and impact of general Mormon distaste for homosexuality. The information accumulated in that second half is damning, but it has nothing to do with why a broad coalition of religious voters from various backgrounds also voted for Prop 8.
It isn't that Cowan's points are wrong. They're right (even if they're reductive sometimes simplistic). It's just that he's not making them with talent or with art. The assembled talking heads have a "These are a few people we happen to know with opinions on the subject" feeling. The assembled footage has a "These are the news clips we were able to clear in time for our deadline" feeling. There are three credited editors and two credited cinematographers and that would explain, at least in part, why neither the look nor pacing of the film are cohesive. There's little doubt that with "8: The Mormon Proposition," speed was the top priority.
Probably my biggest problem, though, is the film's "Well, they're demonizing us, so we're going to demonize them" ethos. There's a stretch of footage from a message the Mormon elders recorded and transmitted to followers encouraging them to donate heavily to Prop 8-related causes and both the audio and video have been manipulated to make the elders seem more threatening and insidious. All the while, all I could think was "The elders sound hateful and scary and malicious enough on their own." I just happen to believe that there was a way of telling this story that could have played more toward the middle, that could have showed moderate California voters how they were duped by out-of-state special interests. That could have made people who were apathetic or ambivalent become outraged and annoyed. Instead, Cowan just settles for making already angry people angrier.