My Sundance Film Festival Monday (Jan. 25) began with a pair of high profile entries from the U.S. Documentary Competition slate.
However, despite fascinating subject matter for "Bhutto" and favored Sundance director Jeffrey Blitz behind "Lucky," neither doc fully engaged me.
Brief reviews for "Bhutto" and "Lucky" after the break...
"Bhutto" (directors Jessica Hernandez and Johnny O'Hara) - The late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto gets adoring and arduously by-the-numbers bio-doc treatment in "Bhutto," which aspires to nothing less than a full history of Pakistan, the Bhutto family and a year-by-year chronicle of the iconic politician's life.
Although not without enlightening interviews and comprehensive perspective, Hernandez and O'Hara are determined to make their documentary accessible to Bhutto neophytes, so "Bhutto" mixes intermediate historical analysis and dry-as-a-bone rudimentary basics, sometimes destroying the all-too-linear progress of the story. "Bhutto" is 115 minutes and the laundry list approach makes it feel longer, even if it remains engrossing.
The only thing that's left out of "Bhutto" is any kind of dissenting opinion on a woman whose political legacy is unquestionably mixed and pragmatically murky. Most of the interviews are with Benazir Bhutto's friends and loved ones who were obviously taken by her cult of personality, as are the filmmakers. Bhutto was a rock star and Hernandez and O'Hara are definitely groupies. The only on-camera critic of Bhutto, her policies and her legacy is niece Fatima, who blames Benazir for her father's death and is torn to shreds by every other talking head.
The allegations of corruption (presumably trumped up by the military opposition) that soiled Benazir Bhutto's reputation before she went into exile are barely given an iota of credence. Nobody even attempts to debunk them, it's like they're not worth engaging with at all. That's a level of hero worship that has no place in a thorough biopic. The filmmakers' adulation is so great that they're forced to contradict themselves when facts get in the way, as when they celebrate Bhutto's first election as prime minister, trumpet all of her immediate achievements and then five minutes later have to admit that due to factors out of her control (and some within her control), Bhutto was unable to accomplish anything. The film also spends a while Bhutto up as a feminist, but when the issues are later raised of her failures to tangibly improve life for women in Pakistan, the filmmakers rush past that and into more welcoming martyrology.
Finally the biggest problem with a movie like "Bhutto" is that you're enjoyment may be based upon how set you are in your opinion coming in, rather than on the craft of the filmmaking or the construction of the documentary argument. If you're pre-inclined to accept Bhutto as a hero with few flaws, you'll find your expectations confirmed and probably love "Bhutto." If you hope for a full portrait -- not a hatchet job, just an acknowledgement of the person's imperfect humanity -- that's not the movie Hernandez and O'Hara wanted to make.
[Amusingly, I'm typing this review before a screening and the person behind me just said he was pleased that "Bhutto" wasn't the whitewash he feared it would be. Like I said... Subjective. Perhaps even more so than with narrative films, you go into documentaries, especially ones where you know at least something about the subject matter, with agendas of your own, certain things that you need addressed in order to be satisfied.]
"Lucky" (director Jeffrey Blitz) - So you think it'd be great to win the lottery, right? To watch the Powerball numbers come up on your TV screen, to hold the giant check, to quit your job and live a life of leisure?
Well you'd be right, argues Jeffrey Blitz's documentary followup to the endearing "Spellbound." But you'd also be wrong!
If NBC hadn't made the short-lived "Windfall," if Nicolas Cage hadn't starred in "It Could Happen to You," if four or five procedural shows hadn't done lottery winner plot arcs in recent seasons, there might be something more ambitious seeming about Blitz's wishy-washy realization that sometimes beating the odds can be a blessing and sometimes it can be a curse. And who would have guessed that sometimes getting everything you wanted brings out the best in people and sometimes it brings out the worst?
Blitz is content to concentrate on a few interesting lottery winners, giving a basic version of their stories and then moving on. Some of those stories are great. There are positive stories like Quang, a Con-Agra employee and Vietnamese immigrant whose $22 million win is like the fulfillment of the American Dream, or math professor Robert, who seems encouraging ways to spend his new wealth. But there are also cautionary tales like Buddy, who went from town hero to laughing stock with his handling of his big win.
So yeah. Some people get happier when they get rich. Other people get miserable. But the reality is probably that people who were happy before stay happy and people who were miserable before rarely suddenly become gleeful. Stop being so darned shocked!
The profiles are cute and occasionally slightly moving, but they're also superficial, as if Blitz is afraid of pushing too hard to ask people who much they're spending, how much they're giving to charity, how much they're giving to friends and loved ones. The camera just lets people congratulate themselves on new-found altruism, celebrate writing "huge checks," but no details are ever provided.
Blitz also has no interest in examining the lottery process, not even in the slightest. He barely examines the lottery's pervasiveness in lower economic areas and doesn't look at the perception (true or false) that the lottery preys on lower income people who can't afford to lose the money because they think it's a more realistic way to break through the American class system than hard work and general upward mobility. The film only features a single long-time lottery loser and it portrays her as being a lovable eccentric whose profligate gambling raises nary a discouraging word.
But it's not like Blitz is required to criticize the lottery. I know it sounds like I want all filmmakers to be critical about their subjects. How about looking at where state lottery money goes, at all of the projects that are financed with lottery money? The lottery winners are lucky ones, but so are the schools and the public works projects that are only able to exist because not everybody is a winner. Even in losing the lottery, in theory you're helping pump money into state and national infrastructures, right? Right? I wouldn't know. Blitz offers occasional statistics and factoids in cute animated segments, but substance just isn't on his agenda.
It's odd that Blitz had so much more access, honesty and depth in "Spellbound," or maybe because Spelling Bees are seen as a more frivolous enterprise, the lack of probing seemed less deficient? Or maybe children are more open and easy to read than guarded adults with money? Who knows. All I know is that "Lucky" delivered 90 minutes of light entertainment and left nothing to stick to the bones (or the brain). As one of my more eagerly anticipated Sundance titles at the start of the Festival, that makes it a slight disappointment.