There is a rich documentary film tradition that has chronicled our nation’s struggle to address the sources and solutions of systemic poverty and income inequality. Films like Roger and Me, Poor Kids: An Intimate Portrait of America’s Economic Crisis, Two Nations of Black America, American Dream, The Queen of Versailles, The Corporation, Harlan County, USA, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Down and Out in America, Inside Job, have all with their unique perspectives attempted to shine a critical light on the political, cultural and socioeconomic forces that contribute to endemic hardship in a country where national rhetoric and historical myth about opportunity often run counter to the research data about access to resources, class privilege and wealth accumulation. We can now add the new film Rich Hill to that list, a film that details the everyday struggles of several families in the tiny town of Rich Hill, MO. The film focuses on three young men who are entering their coming of age years, fraught and complicated in any context, but for them, the difficulties of growing up without financial advantages are compounded by their parents’ struggle with chronic unemployment, health problems and incarceration. Each boy clings to the idea that the American Dream is real and attainable even when the statistics are clearly working against the likelihood that the boys will escape such cyclical poverty. It isn't all doom and gloom, as the film does show the children doing what average American teenagers do and think about. While the film concentrates on a very small town, much of the film can be read as a reflection of the challenges facing large swaths of both rural and urban cities alike.
There’s just not enough time to compose a lengthy review of some of the great and not-so great feature films, television series and documentaries that I’ve caught over the past month, so instead, I’m handing out a grade and an abridged appraisal.
Bastards—A grim, pointless waste of time from French Director Claire Denis (C-)
Hateship Loveship—Continued proof that former SNL star comedian Kristin Wiig should keep looking for dramatic roles (B)
Orphan Black—Yes, lead actress Tatiana Maslany was robbed of an Emmy nomination for her multiple roles in this great BBC-produced show about clones (A)
Requiem for the Big East—For college basketball fans who grew up in the 1980’s and recall watching these legendary teams, this ESPN documentary will rouse a healthy dose of nostalgia (B+)
The Bridge—in keeping with the very trendy, neo-noir subject of serial killing and the relationship between detectives charged with solving the mysteries (see: True Detective), this cross-border drama explores the messy dialectics of national politics, the consequences of drug/human trafficking and the tension between rich and poor (B+)
Captain Phillips—nothing here was particularly new, assuming you followed the story when it originally unfolded, but it still remains a dramatically compelling, well-paced action film that will jump-start your adrenalin (A-)
Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of the New Yorker—a satisfactory if not condensed portrait of an eccentric visionary and his creative collaborators who developed a unique and lasting publication (B)
Palo Alto—a drained, vacuous sketch of the psychic ennui of rich, white teens whose lives gravitate around sex, drugs, video games and pathetic, exploitative adults (D)
The Civilian Conservation Corps is an inspiring and informative PBS documentary about the Depression-era initiative that helped to both put American men back to work and heal the nation’s environment after years of neglect and misuse. Roosevelt’s ingenious program sought to positively impact the lives of the participants by providing a structured way of life for young men that included access to a paycheck ($30/month), three meals a day, healthcare, vocational training, and most significantly, a renewed sense of self-worth and pride. Hundreds of CCC camps sprung up around the nation in 1933 as Roosevelt took over the presidency and developed several transformative programs that would address the country’s economic woes and massive unemployment rate (approximately 30%). The legacy of the CCC’s aggressive plan to revitalize the country's collective misery can still be felt today as thousands of American’s enjoy the great outdoors because of the ingenuity, hard work and sense of national unity from those involved.
Writer, editor, partier, commercial pitchman, and friend of the rich, famous and artistic, George Plimpton was never really taken that seriously as an accomplished, literary heavyweight like many of his writer friends (James Salter, Peter Matthiessen, Ernest Hemingway, Gay Talese). Yet nevertheless, he co-founded and served as editor of one of the most important and prestigious literary magazines of the post-war era, The Paris Review. When not publishing some of the most important writers of his time, Plimpton’s reputation grew mostly from his pioneering development of what he referred to as “participatory journalism”, the act of collecting unique experiences and then detailing them in book form. His most famous gimmick was when he tried out for the Detroit Lions football team as a quarterback, culminating in the bestseller Paper Lion. Much of his interest in being the subject of these journalistic “stints” led critics to suggest that his work can be seen as a precursor to what was dubbed the New Journalism (see: Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson) of the 1960’s. For more on Plimpton’s life, relationships and accomplishments, check out the new documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.
Fans of Errol Morris documentaries will not be surprised by his approach to understanding his most recent subject, the life and philosophies of Donald Rumsfeld. There are the standard cutaways to spirited music (Danny Elfman’s score) blended into a particular image or graphic that relates in some way to the film’s subject. There is the occasional moment where the viewer hears Morris pose a question or request additional information from off camera. Basically, this is a very typical Errol Morris film. Like his previous film The Fog of War, where he allowed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to candidly speak about his role in the escalation and continuation of the Vietnam War, Morris lets Rumsfeld freely talk to the audience, only interjecting here and there in order to pose a question or contradict his subject’s commentary, much of which exhibits Rumsfeld’s talent for turning a phrase (always with a gleam in his eye and a smirk). Morris is clearly fascinated by Rumsfeld’s hubris, confidence, sense of moral clarity, and ability to be dualistically self-aware and ludicrously delusional-- at times he embodies both within a single exchange of ideas. Those who blame Rumsfeld for the invasion and occupation of Iraq will likely be frustrated that Morris refuses to take a more confrontational stance toward some of Rumsfeld’s claims. This has always been Morris’ artistic approach however, to engage his subject by allowing them to feel comfortable enough to be frank and thus more honest, a successful method that allows the viewer critical insights into the mind of Rumsfeld that otherwise would be lost within a polemical or satiric slant. Ultimately, Rumsfeld doesn't blink, doesn't self-evaluate, and therefore, one mostly sees in his glib snark, a man who sticks to his schtick.
The Unknown Known
As with most of the wonderful films that have been made under the ESPN film series 30 for 30, Youngstown Boys is a moving examination of the relationship between power, money, urban neglect and the role that larger socioeconomic forces play in molding the lives of individual athletes as they develop both on and off the proverbial field. These are not films about sports as such but rather powerful documentaries that explore the lives of the famous and infamous through a sociological lens, positioning their subjects within a broad framework for understanding the causes and effects of noteworthy events. This is the story of the rise and fall and rise again journey of a successful college football coach and his star player. It’s also a story all too common in today’s world, where young, inner-city athletes are confronted with difficult challenges and choices in regards to their future. Running back Maurice Claret and coach Jim Tressel were the toast of Columbus, Ohio for one magical year of success before controversy erupted on Ohio State's campus, leaving both men in very different situations, both trying to succeed in a world of greed, influence and big money. Claret’s story unfolded under the intense glare of the national media whereas the documentary provides greater clarity and a more nuanced context as to the events that would test the strong bond between these two Youngstown Boys.
This surprisingly moving and affectionate biography of a celebrated skateboard team from the 1980’s will appeal to both current skateboarders as well as those Generation X kids who grew up following these legendary shredders of the street, pools, and ramps. Cobbled together by 70’s skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta, The Bones Brigade was comprised of the era’s most talented and original riders, including: Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen and Tommy Guerrero. This is an entertaining film that recounts both the personal stories of each individual skater and provides fans of the colorful sport with an insider’s account of skateboarding’s golden era.
The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
70 years ago today, one of World War II's most significant battles was D-Day, the day in which thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel to invade German occupied France. There's certainly no shortage of informational resources on this topic but if you're a WWII buff or simply want to know more about this imporant day in the fight against Nazi Germany, check out The War by Americana documentarian Ken Burns. This is my favorite work of Burns and his most emotionally dramatic. Soldiers who were there, storming the beaches of Normandy, recount with unfiltered descriptions, the horrors, heroism, and blunders that they experienced on that fateful day and in doing so, provide an unromanticized version of their sacrifice. It's Burn's most stirring documentary and one that is required viewing for those interested in World War II. For those who want their history fictionalized, KPL owns many feature films set during wartime, including Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, The Big Red One, Force 10 from Navarone, The Thin Red Line, The English Patient, The Winds of War, In Darkness, Ivan's Childhood, The Cranes are Flying, and Flags of Our Fathers.
In 2009, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Catching Fire, Taxi to the Darkside) set out to chronicle the comeback of 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. But history was about to be re-written in 2013, forcing Gibney to shelve the project as Armstrong’s legal woes grew and the public’s trust in his well-insulated fraud began to erode. The doping allegations and assertions that Armstrong and his cycling teams were systematically cheating had dogged Armstrong throughout his career, even as his storied fight against cancer and celebrity stardom grew, finally forced the world’s most accomplished cyclist to publically admit to cheating during his run as Tour champion, doing so last year on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Gibney scrapped his original plan for the film and re-worked The Armstrong Lie into a fascinating examination of Armstrong’s storybook ascent to prominence and his Shakespearean fall from grace. Cycling fans will love the insider information about the sport’s well documented history of cheaters and scandal but the film will also appeal to viewers interested in the psychological deconstruction of a man who seemingly had it all but who at the same time, pathologically lied to everyone while building a fortress of corruption around his "narrative". Armstrong apologists, if any exist, will have a difficult time in justifying the means of trickery that Armstrong enacted in order to rationalize the ends. This isn’t just a great piece of schadenfreude but also an engaging study on the power of celebrity, money and the addiction to win at all cost.
The Armstrong Lie
This year’s Cannes Film Festival winners included Winter Sleep (Best Film), Bennett Miller (Best Director), Julianne Moore (Best Actress) and Timothy Spall (Best Actor). Here’s a look back at some of the films that have previously been awarded the prestigious Palme d’or.
Taste of Cherry—1997
The White Ribbon—2009