A few politically/socially relevant films

I’ve been really enjoying the McCain-Obama discussions over the past several weeks. They’ve become increasingly relevant for me as I feel my political views are so rapidly changing due to my Eastern European adventures. There seems to be more and more political questioning and discussion. Though there seems to be polarization on some fronts, on the whole I’ve noticed a greater desire for understanding in web discussions.

My time here in Poland has facilitated me moving more to the right politically and economically than ever before. Yet a few films have been on my mind lately that point, in some ways, to the left. I wanted to share a short list.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The first thing you notice about the film is how thoroughly researched it is. I consider director Alex Gibney to be intellectually sound and politically level headed. The film is two parts investigation, one part meditation. But most of the research was already done by the two Fortune Magazine reporters who wrote the book of the same title. Gibney furthers the conclusions of the book and allows for a different, more human focus to the economic story. The film ultimately creates a microcosm of the evils that prevail in extreme Reagan-esque privatizations. The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t speak about privatization, per se, but it does try to learn from the Enron fiasco. To the best of my knowledge, no film has better achieved such clarity, even-handedness, and profundity while simultaneously doling out such massive amounts of information. Profound investigative reporting with a conscience.

Fahrenheit 9/11. I went into the movie expecting to hate it for its melodrama and disregard for truth. I was surprised to find less belligerence than in Bowling for Columbine (perhaps the most illogical, absurd, and yet still self-congratulatory political film I can think of). Most often Bowling for Columbine is described as one-sided while I found it lacking in subject matter — I don’t believe the film actually had a point, therefore we can’t argue that it was too one-sided. I felt similar sentiments about all of Michael Moore’s previous endeavors, both in TV for IFC and his Academy recognized Roger and Me. Imagine my surprise, then, at the skill in the filmmaking in Fahrenheit 9/11. Unlike his previous work, this film was more than a 7th-grade political essay. While we can still argue that some of the political connections he makes are a bit outrageous if not inconclusive, the questions his filmmaking raise does great good for political discussion, I am convinced. I must say that I find the film, despite some of its outrageousness, more politically relevant now than the year it won Palm D’Or at Cannes.

Fog of War. This film, which essentially consists of an interview with Robert McNamara by master documentarian Errol Morris, goes more in depth than the book written by McNamara about the Vietnam War. View this film, if for nothing else, to hear a man who had so much responsibility and so much power in that war say the phrase aloud on camera, “We were wrong.” (Am I the only person who desires this more than anything else in American politics? To hear politicians be honest, even to the detriment of their public image?) The film’s perspective and maturity is astounding.

Hearts and Minds. Though this film is about Vietnam, one can’t help but see application to the current war situation. I highly recommend this film, which was filmed in Vietnam during the war, though it was outrageously one-sided and even skillfully and subtly manipulative. To my eyes, it seems less so now than I imagine it did then. Simply for historical perspective and sheer mass of fact-based information (with occasional anecdote, of course). I highly recommend the Criterion Collection disc of this movie and remember to view it with and without the commentary. The commentary is less for film buffs and more for politically-minded people.

An Inconvenient Truth. Flat out, this is a propaganda piece. The film follows a series of lectures Al Gore gives about global warming. But some messages are simply worth propagating. Now, I grew up in a place where “going green” didn’t need to be articulated because it was almost everyone’s way of life. So I’m grateful for someone bringing to the forefront something that I have believed to be important from my childhood. If nothing else, the film is worth watching or revisiting since I cite it as an epicenter for the more omnipresent environmental discussion (the unfortunate underbelly of which has recently been manifest on The Millennial Star blog).

An Unreasonable Man. You may love or hate Ralph Nader or you may not even know who he is. No matter what group you may belong to, chances are you will have something to say, and that passionately, after this film. When my wife and I saw this at the Sundance Film Festival, everyone seemed to be engaged. The screening before ours had required security because some members of the audience were either so in favor or so angry that they went up on stage, uninvited, during the discussion to take charge of the microphone. Almost everyone had something to say. This quite even-handed film was made by someone who had worked for Nader for several years, who, on the whole, had a favorable take on Nader but also knew his flaws far better than most. Perhaps the greatest quality the film possesses is that of an intense critique of a bipartisan system. The running time is well over two hours, but I can’t remember being on the edge of my seat more consistently during any documentary.

Why We Fight. Though the filmmaking in Andrew Jarecki’s second endeavor is not quite as slick and clever as his first and more disturbing feature Capturing the Freidman’s, the content of Why We Fight is perhaps more visceral and gives more weight where the filmmaking may fall short. The premise is two-fold: First, a reframing of Frank Capra’s vital and historically important propaganda films and second, to reframe our present military condition in light of President Eisenhower’s presidency.

The American national sentiment after Word War I was by and large not supportive of further American involvement in “foreign wars.” Yet the American “powers that were” felt that we needed to go to war. It was in this light that Frank Capra was asked to explain to the American public why it is that we fight. The films clarified and polarized — even narratized — the current global affairs. Jarecki’s feature, as you may guess, is not propaganda, but it seeks to understand 1) the American mentality that causes war as well as 2) the current American popular understanding of political war machinations. To my mind, it fails at both, though there’s more success in the former than the latter. (Through this process, however, the question is raised to whether America should be considered an imperialist state.)

The second premise, however, results in success, to question the industrial-military complex President Eisenhower warned about as he was ending his presidency. This film allows us to view our own time through the lens and foresight that President and General Eisenhower had.


At the end of this list, I realize how much discussion there is about war and how, on the whole, the view of war is critical. By way of disclosure, I did recently argue in favor of violence in my LDS reading of Fight Club on my blog, Toward an LDS Cinema.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks, Trevor. I haven’t seen any of these so I appreciate the list.

    What do you think of Michael Moore’s Sicko? I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been intrigued at the idea simply because I think there is a lot that is messed up in the health care industry (especially pharmaceuticals).

  2. I’m glad Fog of War is on your list. This film offers a unique perspective into the mind of a man who, like almost all political leaders (including our current Presidential candidates), was not prepared for the incredible burden he would bear in high office. Like many others, McNamara tried his best to make difficult decisions that would affect many lives. He demonstrates that the dichotomous, simplistic dialog so common to debates about war falls far short of what is needed.

  3. LDS reading of fight club link is very interesting. I think I’d be willing to watch that movie now.

    One political documentary I would recomend is called maxed out. It’s about the practices of credit card companies and debt collection companies.

  4. Dennis,
    I, too, have yet to see Sicko, though I even had tickets to a screening where Moore had a few words to say at the beginning (we were moving… the things we sacrifice). The general consensus from what I’ve read is that Moore is more considerate than he has been, and he takes a hint to get out form in front of the camera, though in the end he finally does so.

    The most fascinating things I’ve heard about that film are: the brit film scholars I know have loved it, The more well-traveled American critics wish he would have considered the difficulties of Socialist health care (which he apparently doesn’t address at all), and the Polish press hate the film. I’m most fascinated by the latter. They criticize him for complaining about the very thing they are trying to emulate. I’m working on another post where I go into more detail, but all of the problems in Polish health care (and I’m saying this after months of reliance on Polish health care, remember) would be eliminated by a switch to an American system…. in all actuality I go too far in saying that. The problem is the Communist mindset. The bigger problem is the Communist mindset in a Capitalist system. We’re seeing some shocking economic natural selection going on here.

    I wanted to study medicine, and took all the pre-med classes for several semesters until I couldn’t stand the politics and economics involved anymore.

    Clayton, Glad you liked the Fight Club discussion. I’d love to hear your reaction if you do see it. I, obviously don’t recommend it wholeheartedly, but I do think we’d do better to discuss things like that more often.

    I don’t know anything about the film you mentioned, but I do wish someone could capture something more about consumerism and what the credit revolution has done to us…. or what we’ve let it do to us.

    I should mention that both Errol Morris (Fog of War) and Alex Gibney (Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room) have made films about the situation in Iraq, neither of which I’ve yet had access to. The Former, Standard Operating Procedure, about Abu Ghraib. The Later, Taxi to the Dark Side, about Guantanamo, the capture, torture and death of an innocent Afghani Taxi Driver, the soldiers involved and Dick Cheney. From what I understand, both features are ambitious and thought-provoking, though it seems the later is more thoughtful.

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