What Can Political Documentarians Learn From Frank Capra Movies?

What Can Political Documentarians Learn From Frank Capra Movies?

Sep 05, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is the success of a certain conservative documentary and the knee-jerk dismissal of it by liberals.

The other day I got upset with a documentary fan who dismissed the box office success of 2016: Obama’s America. The person stated that it’s normally great to see nonfiction films do well, but in the case of this sudden hit, which the person hadn’t seen and claims never will, the achievement is depressing. Why? Because of its politics? Or, is it more about the film itself, just the equivalent of regular movie fans being depressed that Transformers sequels gross 25 times more than Terrence Malick films?

Some combined expectation of low quality and political disagreement is probably the full answer, yet going on production value and filmmaking craft alone, 2016 is really not that bad. For that, we can probably thank the involvement of producer Gerald R. Molen, an Oscar winner for Schindler’s List and a longtime collaborator with Steven Spielberg who also worked on Jurassic Park and Minority Report. As for the politics, it’s one thing to disagree and another to ignore. And I firmly believe nobody should knock a doc sight unseen simply for idealistically opposing its subject matter.

This column isn’t intended to be a defense of “the anti-Obama documentary,” though. You can find my thoughts on the film in my slightly negative review published elsewhere. And I don’t want to write another rant about how one-sidedness and propaganda are actually fair and to be appreciated as a freedom we have in this country. Instead, as much as I respect and enjoy many highly subjective political documentaries, I want to propose a way for filmmakers to produce documentaries that are more easily accessible to both sides of the political spectrum: take a page from the fiction films of Frank Capra.

I almost didn’t specify fiction films, which would be confusing since the director’s Why We Fight documentary series for the U.S. government during World War II is definitely propaganda. Of course, it was propaganda that most Americans, Republican and Democrat, could get behind. His fiction films, though, particularly those released in the decade ahead of the war, they were even more appealing to all audiences, enough to help turn Columbia Pictures into a major studio, in spite of these films having strong political themes and, especially following Capra’s life-changing near-death illness in 1934, direct political messages.

The thing is, and this is something that might not be acceptable for many documentarians of today, those messages were not always completely obvious. To put it simply, Capra was a conservative, FDR-hating Republican and yet the Soviets considered him a “comrade” following the release of his “Red propaganda” film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Maybe they meant to celebrate the film’s truly left-wing screenwriter, Robert Riskin, who penned a majority of Capra’s Depression-era movies, excluding Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was scripted by full-fledged card-carrying communist Sidney Buchman while Riskin was suspended by Columbia.

And speaking of Columbia, the studio was at the time run by the Mussolini-loving Harry Cohn. So it was a fascinating trio of players making seemingly lefty films like You Can’t Take That with You. But that’s what I love about them. You can find your own ideals within most of Capra’s films, though if you really look you’ll see that his messages of traditionalism, patriotism, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility all come out on top. And if the films’ politics were complex and vague enough back then to be generally identifiable and relevant to both sides, they’re even less clear now given how different the political spectrum is today and how cynical the world has become.   

Does the changed landscape mean it would be more difficult for political opposites to work together on anything but cute ad campaigns (you have to love James Carville and Mary Matalin, by the way)? Well, one of the big selling points for the new documentary U.N. Me has been that its director is a right-wing journalist (Ami Horowitz, who was inspired by the left-wing films of Michael Moore -- proof that some one-sided docs can be enjoyed by the opposition) but the bulk of its crew, including the writers, are liberals.

The film doesn’t tackle anything so right or left as criticisms of the current POTUS or a hot topic issue you’d find addressed in an election year debate. But its inquiry into the faults and corruption of the United Nations is still political, and aside from having the jestering conservative director on screen all the time, the balanced creative input results in something fairer than you’d find if the whole team was completely against the organization.

2016 has a level of fairness, but it’s not exactly through the inclusion of Obama’s own words, from his book Dreams From My Father, as the film’s defenders keep telling me. It’s in the presentation of certain facts and ideas that play one way to Republican audiences and another way to Democrat audiences. Both sides can identify and find truth, but in the end, first-person director Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Obama slant and speculative rhetoric comes out on top much more superficially than Capra’s politics did. So, understandably, Obama supporters aren’t interested. I wonder if having a prominent liberal cowriter might have helped in that regard.

But that’s if we really need political documentaries to each be accepted equally among all moviegoers. Maybe it’s enough that we already have journalistic television documentaries with no real political agenda whatsoever, like the Romney and Obama “Revealed” profiles produced by CNN. And it should just be acceptable that while the Left may have more documentary filmmakers representing them and more well-produced, high-grossing and Oscar-winning political docs released, every so often a film like 2016 comes along and caters to the Right. Maybe we still don’t like the films (judged only after seeing them, of course), but isn’t it kinda boring if all we have is docs aimed at preaching to our own choir?



In Theaters

There are a few docs out this week that I find worthy of recommendation, and they’re not really too comparable either, so I’m going to skip on naming a single pick. But I also don't have any home video recommendations this week, so I guess it's okay. 

It’s been a year since I saw David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model at Toronto, when I named it my favorite doc of the fest and one I hoped to revisit (somehow I still haven’t seen it a second time). And while it’s necessary viewing for a number of reasons, including the main issue of the exploited young Siberian models living unguided in Japan, you should find that the most memorable part of the film is veteran model-turned-scout Ashley Arbaugh, an unbelievably intriguing nonfiction character. It opened in NYC today and starts in Maine Friday and L.A. and San Francisco next Friday (see playdates).

Likewise, there are some obvious reasons a lot of you will be drawn to Neil Berkeley’s crowd-pleasing doc Beauty Is Embarrassing. It’s about Wayne White, an artist you may not know by name but who is responsible for designing most of the puppet characters on Pee-wee’s Playhouse as well as animations for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” videos. Come for the Pee-wee behind-the-scenes stuff and stay for the latest film to have great insight into the art world as well as the best doc about an artist family since The Woodmans, which it is absolutely nothing like. See this SXSW hit in NYC, L.A., Seattle or Minneapolis starting this weekend. Other cities to come next week and throughout the month (see playdates).

Last but maybe actually best is Detropia, the latest from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the Oscar-nominated duo behind Jesus Camp. This time they took on the challenge of making a doc about Detroit. The whole city. And not only that, it’s being viewed as really a doc about the whole country right now. I actually don’t know about the microcosm aspect, but I do know it’s a gorgeous city symphony film that just so happens to share some bits and pieces in the way of characters as well. It’s also surprisingly uplifting, and if you’re a regular Doc Talk reader you know I’m on a hopeful doc kick lately. The brilliance with this one is pretty subtle, which ought to make it a film you want to watch over and over again. You can begin when it opens in NYC this Friday or in other cities, including Detroit and other locations in Michigan, beginning next week (see playdates).


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog


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