A Greater Society


This is what difference makers look like.

(2018) Documentary (Deranged Squirrel) Ruth G. Weber, Fred Genetti, Tamara Gussman Stine, Howard Finkelstein, Jack Mendelson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mitch Caesar, Bruce Bandler, Ronny Sydney, Minerva Nazario, Karen Hoffman, Jack Shifrel, Tony Fransetta, Jeff Johnson, Ted Deutch, Ashley Walker. Directed by Stacy Goldate and Craig A. Colton

Down in Broward County in South Florida, just north of Miami is Wynmoor, one of many retirement communities in the area. California developers opened the facility back in 1973, marketing it mainly to residents of New York City and the Northeast in general, wooing residents with sunshine, modern amenities and sea breezes. Their advertising campaign worked; more than 4,000 residents live there now, many of them of the Jewish faith.

The Jewish community in New York City tends to be progressive; many lived through the depression and the New Deal of FDR. All of them lived through the 60s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” which tried to address poverty, racism and rising medical costs. While the New Deal established Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the Voter Rights Act came out of the Great Society. In fact, the title of the movie is a play on LBJ’s ambitious program.

When Wynmoor opened, Broward County was largely a Conservative bastion although at the time it was mostly Dixiecrats that made up the voter rolls. Since then, Southern conservatives have moved to the Republican party as the Democrats became champions of civil rights and other things that the Old South was less than fond of. The arrival of large numbers of progressive elderly from the Northeast swayed the county from red to blue.

This fascinating documentary, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its way onto the Vimeo streaming service, looks at the residents of Wynmoor during the 2014 midterm elections when Rick Scott was running for re-election as governor. It starts with the primaries when former Republican governor Charlie Crist was running against Nan Rich, leader of the Democratic party in the Florida House of Representatives and a grandmother herself, which appealed to many of the voters at Wynmoor who saw in her someone who understood the needs of their age group but also their desire to provide the services they rely on for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Much of the emphasis focuses on the Wynmoor Democrat Club which true to its name supports Democratic candidates and makes sure that residents of that party get out and vote. The stereotype of the elderly is that they tend to be conservative and suspicious of change; nothing could be further from the truth and it is refreshing to see the liberal activism that goes on in a group of people who could easily just take a dip in the pool, play some shuffleboard and in general just enjoy their golden years. It means something when someone who has earner their retirement nevertheless gets out and appeals for people to vote.

There is a Republican club as well, led by the knowledgeable Jack Mendelson who has a sunny sense of humor and a propensity towards driving his wife crazy. Despite being such an engaging subject, he gets a whole lot less screen time than his liberal counterparts who are, to be sure, equally fascinating, particularly Fred Genetti, a handsome man pushing 70 at the time of filming who only reluctantly gets active in the election but proves to be very good at it, and Ruth Weber, a 98-year-old woman born during the Woodrow Wilson administration who is still sharp as a tack and as passionate about politics as anyone a quarter her age. Conservative viewers may well find the disparity insulting, but the truth is that the Democrats appear to be much more active at Wynmoor than the Republicans.

In fact, Wynmoor is so important to the Democrats that often luminaries of that party stop by the complex to campaign, including Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (then-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) and both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The documentary labels the activist seniors as kingmakers and they aren’t far wrong.

The pace of the film is a little bit slow, but it seems to mirror the lifestyle of the residents and is perhaps a nod at the target audience. The filmmakers certainly display the power of organization and that coming together as a community matters. The filmmakers engage in a lot of talking head interviews but not as much as you might think. They use political cartoons to set up the political history nicely and the footage of the seniors going about their day is genuinely interesting.

This is a different kind of political documentary. Although it leans a bit left, it is by no means out there to extol one side over the other. Red or blue, there is a lesson in what these seniors accomplish and in their genuine love for their country and its future. Every vote matters and these citizens are well aware of that fact. Particularly in a midterm election year where so much is riding on the outcome, it seems a particularly timely film that anyone who thinks their vote doesn’t make a difference should check out.

REASONS TO GO: Weber and Genetti are both engaging personalities. The filmmakers turn stereotypes of the elderly on their ear. The filmmakers give time (although far from equal) to both sides of the aisle.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be a little bit slow for some
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Goldate and Colton primarily work in the editing bay for other projects; this is their first project as co-directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bel Canto

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John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

To get these kind of muscles, you really gotta hustle.

(2008) Documentary (Magnolia) Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Sheldon Bell, Rosemary Bell, Stan Lee, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, Joe Biden, Will Harris, Greg Valentino. Directed by Christopher Bell

America loves a winner, General George Patton tells us, and can’t abide a loser. This is a truth that is central in understanding the American character. We all know what the American dream is; but what is the American ideal?

Filmmaker Christopher Bell knows. As a boy growing up in Poughkeepsie, he and his brothers worshipped the same things that other boys growing up in the 1980s worshipped; Rambo, Hulk Hogan, the Terminator. He wanted to be just like them, as his brothers Mike and Mark also did. When it came out that their bodies weren’t developed naturally but had a little help from steroids, at first he was devastated. However, that understanding brought all three of the boys to the same conclusion; if that’s what it takes to get those kinds of bodies, then that’s what they had to do.

In fact it wasn’t the muscular bodies themselves that the Bell boys craved but what came with it; success and victory, victory in weightlifting competitions and professional wrestling matches. They wanted to be famous and admired. What they got instead was a lifetime of frustration. Professional wrestling is a tough business to achieve glory in and the Bell brothers made little headway. Brief careers in World Wrestling Entertainment did not yield the expected results.

The movie addresses calmly and rationally the entire steroid and performance enhancement issue. Steroids are illegal in this country without a prescription and the purpose of building muscle is not considered a valid reason for prescribing them medically. However, unlike other drugs with similar prohibitions, there are no narcotic elements to steroids. There’s no evidence that steroids are especially harmful (Lyle Alzado’s assertions that steroids caused his brain tumor to the contrary) and quite frankly, the whole concept of “Roid Rage” which allegedly fueled pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s homicidal rampage has no medical basis.

The real issue with steroids, Bell alleges, is far more insidious. It is the buying into the culture of competitive edge, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It drives athletes – where, the movie alleges, steroid us is commonplace from the professional level on down – to use whatever edge they can find to be successful.

Then-Senator Joe Biden called steroids “Un-American,” but as Greg Valentino, a steroid user asserts, “Steroids are as American as apple pie.” Self-proclaimed with the largest biceps in the world, Valentino is something of a freak. Although muscular, his biceps are so large that it is unattractive which Valentino cheerfully admits. For him, it’s not about attracting the ladies for Valentino; it’s about being the biggest. He certainly attracts male admirers who think the man is a legend. His interviews in the movie are some of the most entertaining; Valentino is a naturally charismatic guy.

The movie’s at its best when it concentrates on the effects of steroids on the families of the brothers. Their parents were unaware of the boys’ steroid use and the news of it was devastating to them. Mike’s wife is concerned with the use of the steroids; she wants another baby and steroids decrease fertility. Mike promises to stop using them when he lifts 700 pounds, an achievement he does eventually attain. However, whether or not he keeps that promise is very much up in the air.

Like documentarian Michael Moore, Bell tells his story very specifically, using a lot of facts – and a fair amount of humor – to illustrate his points. However, Moore’s pieces haven’t been personal since Roger and Me; this is Bell’s family story and it obviously is very important to him. That investment is what makes this documentary special. Whether or not the subject interests you, the glimpse into an American family – and seeing what the American ideal has done to it – is more than worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-made, rational and sober examination on the use of steroids and its impact on a single American family. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Near the end the filmmakers try to tackle a little too much of a range; the movie is better when it focuses on the Bell family.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie is about the consumption of what are now illegal drugs in the United States, so you do the math. There is also some sexual content and a bit of everyday foul language as well as some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was compiled from over 400 hours of filmed interviews and 600 hours of archival footage.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Shoot ’em Up