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The surprise in a year of political docs: Why red-meat finger pointing is less potent than the personal

The surprise in a year of political docs: Why red-meat finger pointing is less potent than the personal
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the documentary "RBG." (Magnolia Pictures)

It’s still true, as the slogan of the ’60s and ’70s phrased it, that the personal is political. What is also the case in 2018 is that the political has become deeply, intensely personal.

In a way that would have been unheard of in the recent past, Americans of all stripes have taken their political points of view very much to heart, attending rallies and fundraisers, donating time and money and caring as much about the public arena as they do about their private lives.

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One way this is visible is in the great number of political documentaries that have appeared on theatrical screens in 2018. The year is barely three-quarters over and I’ve seen close to 20 documentaries that could be classified as political, and that is a lot.

But if the number is surprising, so is the nature of these films and the nature of audience response to them. It turns out things are focused in a way the vehement nature of today’s political scene would not have predicted.

America’s top political documentarians, at least in terms of box office, both had films in 2018, and perhaps the biggest piece of unexpected news is that, despite the virulence of the news cycle, neither made much of a dent in the weekly charts.

On the left, Michael Moore, whose 2004 “Fahrenheit 9/11” set a record for political docs with a $119 million gross, had a well-reviewed new film called “Fahrenheit 11/9,” which to date has grossed a fraction of that earlier figure, $6.2 million.

On the right, director Dinesh D’Souza, whose “2016: Obama’s America” surprised pundits with a $33.4 million gross in 2012, also had a new film this year. But “Death of a Nation” didn’t do any better than Michael Moore’s film, with a gross of $5.8 million to date.

More than that, what the subject matter of 2018’s political documentaries demonstrate is not a passion for red meat or the pointing of fingers but a concern with problems that people of all parties should want to solve.

The making of politics personal has led not to partisanship but citizenship. Motivated perhaps by the chaos in Washington, documentarians are looking at what is wrong with society, with issues that impact America as a whole.

Protesters against dark money in Washington DC, in the documentary "Dark Money."
Protesters against dark money in Washington DC, in the documentary "Dark Money." (PBS Distribution)

A strong example of this is Kimberly Reed’s “Dark Money,” which deals with the way large sums of untraceable political campaign contributions have wreaked havoc in the state of Montana, funding savage, completely fictitious attacks so close to election day that no response is logistically possible.

What makes these attacks of such interest is that the Montana legislators being targeted are not liberal firebrands but Republicans with reliably conservative records. Who would go after people like this, and why, is an issue that cuts across party lines.

Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich’s “Moynihan” concerns Daniel Patrick Moynihan, someone whose political career included stints as a New Deal-loving Democratic senator from New York and a close White House adviser to Richard Nixon.

A man whose belief that “if you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government” sounds especially valid today, Moynihan was ecumenical and public spirited enough for this film to include encomiums from commentators as various as former Vice President Joseph Biden and writers George Will and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Two of 2018’s most potent political documentaries, Rudy Valdez’s “The Sentence” and Stephen Maing’s “Crime + Punishment,” both deal with law-and-order situations that are unfair in such an obvious way that they’d likely outrage anyone who believes in a just and moral society.

“Crime + Punishment” gives a voice to the NYPD12, a group of whistle-blowing New York City police officers who risked their careers to help fight the illegal but ongoing department policy of quotas for arrests and tickets.

“The Sentence,” by contrast, deals with a woman behind bars — someone who was imprisoned so long for such spurious charges because of mandatory minimum laws that tie the hands of judges that the situation would be absurd if the consequences weren’t so serious.

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Given that both the Moore and D’Souza documentaries underperformed, it’s interesting to note the documentaries audiences flocked to. And in fact two of the top three on the Box Office Mojo chart fit snugly into the category of films that promote fair-minded civic engagement.

Fred Rogers is the subject of 2018's top-grossing documentary (so far), "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
Fred Rogers is the subject of 2018's top-grossing documentary (so far), "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (Focus Features)

The top doc of 2018, Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about kids TV icon Mr. Rogers, may not sound like it has any political context.

But to hear Mr. Rogers talk to tiny tots about assassination and about King Friday XIII’s plan to build a wall to keep out “all the people who are not like us,” shows politics was there, and underlines how much people yearn for a public voice that speaks out persuasively for kindness and concern.

Even more instructive in this context is the No. 3 doc on the box-office list (No. 2 is an Imax nature film). That would be “RBG,” Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Though the documentary does not hide Ginsburg’s staunchly liberal political views (how could it?), it also foregrounds the way she didn’t let them get in the way of a deep friendship with conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia.

Even ideological opponents like Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch seem to be impressed by the way the arc of Ginsburg's life exemplifies the American dream, showing this country working as advertised.

When it became clear that “RBG” was becoming a box-office force to be reckoned with, industry analysts noted that it was performing nearly as well in red states as blue ones. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign of a country that’s hungry for integrity and veracity, hungry for the kind of material this year’s documentaries amply provide.

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