American Gadfly


Sharing a laugh before hitting the campaign laptop.

(2022) Documentary (Gravitas) Mike Gravel, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery, Henry Magowan, Whitney Stewart Gravel, Dave Weigel, Jamie Keiles, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, Jon Suhr, Anne Williams, Bettina Weil, Keane Bhatt, Alex Chang, Benjamin Church, Niko House, Katherine Williams. Directed by Skye Wallin

 

The political landscape has changed, as it always, inevitably, does. As technologies change, as fresh blood infuses the electorate, the way in which political discourse is conducted has shifted. We are entering the age, for better or for worse, of the political meme.

As the 2020 presidential election began to take shape, a group of politically-minded high school seniors in upscale Westchester County, New York, felt frustrated by the way the Democratic primaries were shaping out. Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery (a junior) and Henry Magowan felt that the issues important to them and to other young liberals, were not being addressed by the largely centrist group of candidates. Even Bernie Sanders didn’t feel far enough to the left for them. They thought they needed a candidate who would, at least, bring their issues to the conversation.

They found one in Mike Gravel (pronounced Gra-velle, with an emphasis on the second syllable. A former Senator from Alaska, Gravel was known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record to point out the criminal activities being perpetrated by military forces in Vietnam. He was a bit of a maverick, often breaking with party lines, who believed in direct Democracy – that issues should be decided by a popular vote by the electorate, rather than by elected officials. He was also a pacifist, vehemently antiwar.

The trouble was that Gravel was long since retired from politics, living in Monterey, California, and just shy of 90. That didn’t stop the idealistic teens from reaching out to Gravel and asking him to run one last time for President, as he had in 2008 where he had at least made it to the debate stage.

The boys had no illusions of winning the primary. All they wanted to accomplish was to get Gravel on the debate stage this time out, so that their issues might be expressed. Gravel was intrigued by the idea, although he felt that the physical demands of the campaign would be too much for him. However, he agreed to file and allow the students to use his social media accounts to raise the issues and have the conversation that the boys felt was important for the party’s future.

The documentary follows the process as the boys run a uniquely 21st century campaign through Twitter and Facebook. They took on the other candidates for the Democratic primary, often snarky in tone, but the campaign was unusual enough to get some notice from the late night talk shows…well, at least, one of them, anyway.

Although the title of the movie seems to indicate that it’s about Gravel, the former Senator is actually a supporting player. He is generally contacted by phone and rarely consulted about the content of the campaign. The movie is really about the four young men, who know absolutely nothing about running a campaign and yet managing to achieve the goal of getting enough donations to qualify for the second Democratic primary debate – unfortunately, Gravel still didn’t make the stage since more than 20 candidates qualified and the organizers would only permit a maximum of 20 candidates onstage.

The focus on the boys has some interest; as the campaign goes on, some friction rises between the four as they begn to disagree on how the campaign is to be run. Still, this may well be a preview of how campaigns are going to be run in the near-future, and in many ways it’s chilling. When you reduce the conversation to television sound bites, ideas often get essentially lost; reduce it further to accomodate Twitter and the ideas disappear completely. The memes are often snarky and sometimes even vicious; even though the boys decry the bullying tactics of Trump, they often imitate them. Watching this, I thought about the divide between conservatives and liberals in this country; would we further fracture as the far right and far left take on the centrists in their own parties? Can we as a nation ever come back from such a divide?

One admires the chutzpah of the four young men running a campaign on a shoestring. Some will grumble that there isn’t a great deal of inclusiveness in their campaign – no women and only two people of color (both Asians) are involved with their campaign in any meaningful way, but considering that this is essentially four guys from the same school who decided to tilt at a particular windmill that others weren’t likely to follow along with, it’s understandable that they didn’t attract a whole lot of interest from others who might have been (and were) more interested in the campaigns of Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang.

The movie is a bit self-aggrandizing – the boys tend to make claims about the effects of their campaign on the national conversation that I don’t think are warranted – but at the end of the day, four young men of a generation that are pretty much left out of the political equation saw a need to get themselves representation and went for it. There’s nothing that isn’t admirable about that.

REASONS TO SEE: There is something comforting about watching young people trying to change the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is somewhat misleading towards the content.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity as well as some adult these.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravel passed away at age 91 on June 26, 2021 of multiple myelomas. He is the oldest candidate for President in the history of the Democratic party.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Brand is Crisis
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Don’t Look Up

Not Going Quietly


Ady Barkan having a dad moment with his young son.

(2021) Documentary (Greenwich) Ady Barkan, Racheal King, Elizabeth Jaff, Cory Booker, Helen Brosnan, Brad Kleffer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tracey Corder, Nate Smith, Kamala Harris, Carl Barkan, Ana Maria Archila. Directed by Nicholas Bruckman

 

There are those who consider COVID-19 little worse than the average flu (rightly or wrongly) but one disease that everyone agrees is absolutely horrible is ALS. It is a fatal degenerative disease that slowly robs the victim of every facility and sense, until they are imprisoned in a body that is unable to do anything, all the while retaining full cognizant function. There is no cure and no treatment for it; all one can do is ride it out to the bitter end. Both baseball Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig and Nobel-winning physicist Stephen Hawking were among the most notable people to contract the disease.

Ady Barkan was a progressive activist and lawyer who worked for a number of causes. An engaging young man with a room-blinding smile, he had a young wife and a beautiful baby boy. But then, the 32 year old was given the devastating diagnosis; ALS, and doctors figured he had three to five years to live.

But worse still than that diagnosis was dealing with the medical insurance companies. Doctors prescribed a breathing apparatus that was absolutely essential for Baran’s continued living, a device they termed “uncontroversial,” but his insurance company denied it as “experimental.” Frustrated and angry, Barkan chose to channel his frustrations into activism and began advocating for universal health care. And then, Trump got elected and Barkan, wo was going to become more and more dependent on the health care system for his very survival, realized he was in serious trouble.

A chance meeting on a plane home saw a conversation between Barkan and then-Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona in which Barkan pleaded with the Republican politician to “be a hero” and vote against the Trump tax cut (a plea that ultimately proved futile). However the media-savvy activist Liz Jaff, who filmed the encounter, co-founded the Be a Hero PAC with Barkan and they set out to change hearts and minds.

In some things they were successful; aided by their efforts, the 2018 elections saw the Democrats retake the House of Representatives. In other things, they were not; despite their efforts, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, despite accusations of sexual misconduct. Barkan worked diligently, trying to advance the agenda of the left while holding the tide back on the politics of the right, but it was taking a toll. The disease was ravaging his body, soon confining Barkan to a wheelchair; he became unable to do basic things like dress himself, bathe himself and feed himself. Eventually, the disease robbed him of his very voice and the film begins and ends with Barkan, addressing Congress by the aid of a computer voice that Barkan operates by using his eyes.

Throughout, we are shown Barkan’s indefatigable sense of humor, his continuing passion, and his unassailable love for his family – wife Racheal (herself a college professor and published author) and infant/toddler son Carl. We also see the toll that the disease coupled with the workload takes on Barkan physically. One cannot help but admire Barkan’s courage.

And if the film gets a little bit hagiographic in that sense, it is understandable Most people given a diagnosis of a fatal disease are not going to use their last years working hard as an activist for a cause; they are going to spend as much time as humanly possible with their families, and do things that are important to them, be it a trip to Disney World or taking a luxury cruise.

Most of what is onscreen is footage from Barkan’s activism coupled with home movies. Amazingly, although his wife Rachael is very much in evidence in the film, we don’t hear from her much, or at least not in meaningful ways. We see the toll taken on Barkan, but we rarely see how the care for a person in Ady Barkan’s position takes its own toll on his loved ones.

For a man for whom family is so demonstrably important, it is a glaring omission. Still, watching Barkan push ahead through his own body’s breakdowns, his occasional despair and the indifference of politicians who mouth platitudes of sympathy out of one side of their mouths and then vote to imperil his life out of the other. Of course, politicians are an easy target to despise, just as people like Barkan who are tilting at windmills with the last of their strength are as easy to admire. Nevertheless, those like Barkan should receive the plaudits they deserve – as the politicians who oppose them the ignominy.

REASONS TO SEE: Barkan is courageous, engaging, and inspiring. Points out the cowardly nature of politics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to get enough commentary from Racheal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a sexual assault is discussed.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers of this documentary are actor/activist Bradley Whitford and the Duplass brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Raging Fire

Fahrenheit 11/9


Trump supporters wearing their thoughts on their sleeves.

(2018) Documentary (Briarcliff/AnnapurnaMichael Moore, Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Bill Maher, Bernie Sanders, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Wendy Williams, Roger Ailes, Megyn Kelly, John Podesta, Roger Stone, Paul Ryan, Joe Scarborough, Larry King, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ashleigh Banfield, April Cook-Hawkins, Brooke Baldwin. Directed by Michael Moore

 

During the 2016 Presidential election, one of the lone voices on the left predicting that Trump would win was gadfly and documentarian Michael Moore. The favored son of Flint, Michigan takes the time to illustrate just how this came to pass when virtually nobody thought it would – other than Trump and his followers.

This is perhaps Moore’s most serious documentary, with less of the stunts that characterize his other films (although he does attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and dares politicians to drink a glass of Flint water) and gives the movie a bit of a bleaker turn than most of his other work.

Moore doesn’t pull punches and he doesn’t always play fair with his facts; some of his commentary is a bit of a stretch and like that guy whose sense of humor isn’t always apparent, you’re never sure if he’s kidding or not.

Moore spends most of the movie illustrating how corporate America has essentially bought our democracy and has turned it into their own private ATM, making sure legislation favors the wealthy and the corporate at the expense of the working class and of course the poor – two classes that are virtually indistinguishable now. He does show glimmers of hope with the Parkland students rising up and leading a massive national march for gun control, and profiling politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who might just make a difference in years to come.

Those who lean to the right in their political thinking are not likely to see this, but then again, this movie isn’t really for them – it’s more of a call to arms for the left which Moore criticizes has become complacent and self-destructive. We must all stand together, he opines – or as the Founding fathers might have added, we will all hang separately.

REASONS TO SEE: Adequately explains what got us to this point. Smart and occasionally mind-blowing.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattershot and at the end of the day, probably doesn’t accomplish what it set out to.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film made its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore hosted a special premiere in his home town of Flint, Michigan (which figures heavily in the movie) four days later.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fahrenheit 9/11
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Life, Itself