American Chaos (2018)

Great personal travelogue about one irate Democrat’s journey to understand the 2016 election result. Essentially an extended video diary, this features Chicagoan James Stern criss-crossing the country to seek out the fabled ‘Trumpland’ of America, where the voters James cannot believe actually exist, live. It’s a fun road trip. Stern’s scathing contempt and utter confusion about what is happening in the country is entertaining and also instructive. Of course, his mission into red states ends with insights that he didn’t expect.

It’s also just a fabulous document of the atmosphere of the country outside of LA and the East Coast beltway in the run-up to the election. Stern is a winsome and articulate host and it is fun watching him engaging with what for many Americans is simply ‘reality’.

Stern has also collected some really wonderful interviews here that will last the test of time. They are pure Americana, and add up to an enjoyable and laid-back snapshot of the country in 2016. Putting all these highly distinctive, personal, divergent and colorful opinions about the two candidates together also makes up a profound meditation on the temperature of the country on the eve of the momentous election. Viewing this documentary now four years later above all it seems to offer a gentle invitation for all Americans finally to find some common ground and to make their peace with the democratic will of the American people as a whole, and maybe get on with life!

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

This movie is a tour de force and stands with the great courtroom dramas of cinema history. It is the career masterpiece of celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and will almost certainly win the Best Picture Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. While we are currently awash with ‘On The Basis of Sex’-style unabashed liberal propaganda pieces, this is something more. Like that movie it is well made, with a large budget and some great performances, however this production is a lot bigger and a lot better all round. It screams quality. The 1968 case in question was a touchstone of modern American history and it gets a luxurious treatment here.

Sascha Baron-Cohen (a dead ringer for a young Elliot Gould) dominates as the wise-cracking Abbie Hoffman, one of the 7 on trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a convention that had denied the rioters their first choice of Presidential nominee Bobby Kennedy by the assassin’s bullet and in a mockery of democracy now replaced him with the establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey. Frank Langella is brilliant as the villain of the piece, reactionary Judge Hoffman (no relation!) The fast pace, epic production design, razor-sharp editing and of course the dialogue – Sorkin’s speciality – are superb, and elevate this effort to instant classic status.

There is some attempt to draw a moral equivalence here between the anti-draft protests of the sixties and the recent ‘Summer of hate’ BLM protests. But that is a specious comparison: protesting the concept of any kind of police and law at all is not the same as protesting being sent around the world to kill or be killed. If anything this movie serves to remind us of the greater character, nobility and purpose of a previous generation’s youth. Although the stated aims of the protesters back then were ostensibly the same: the intentionally vague ‘revolution’, with its irresponsible, naive and/or willful ignorance of history’s witness that such revolutions always result in genocide and the worst kind of tyranny, at least those protesters were attempting to stop an unjust war and prevent American imperialism from oppressing foreign nations. Today’s rioters and looters are not interested in the ongoing oppression of foreign nations, only their own comparatively very comfortable condition that does not in any way require them to go overseas to fight and die, and they have no programme of solution other than destruction and vandalism. The Coronavirus lockdown would be a worthy cause to protest against, but that rarely even gets a mention!

The Swamp (2020)

Government corruption! Whatever happened to that issue? Well, as could be expected, it has been tastefully and discreetly dropped. But it hasn’t gone anywhere. This beautiful documentary asks an extraordinary question: what if we look at ‘the swamp’ of Congressional corruption from a bipartizan, neutral perspective? Wow what an idea! Neutrality is incredibly rare in today’s polarised political climate, and this doc just about manages to achieve it.

The main focus is Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, as pro-Trump a Republican as you could find, but one who also has the amazing idea of working with other Representatives to drain the swamp, even if they are from a different party! Shocker! Much of the film covers his cross-party efforts with Democrat Ro Khanna and how the two of them fare going up against the unbelievably entrenched interests on the Hill. The film also features other Representatives who similarly recognise that political corruption is not a party issue, it’s an American issue, and it requires everyone to get involved for it to be fixed.

The fun here is getting a peek into the cloistered world of the Capitol (the ‘Death Star’!) and the House of Representatives and seeing how these guys go about their daily activities of fund-raising, voting, pressing the flesh and taking calls from constituents. Fly-on-the-wall gold!

1971 (2014)

This is a great little documentary about a little-known incident in 1971 when a group of student activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole files and leaked them to national newspapers. Depending on who you listen to, this may have been a very influential event indeed, even beginning the process of unravelling the corrupt Depression generation’s grip on power in the USA. Whether it was or not, this charming and highly watchable movie is a fascinating window into a very different time. A pretty odd and surprisingly dark time of entrenched culture clash and generational warfare where you were either a hairy baby boomer or not. A time when seemingly normal human beings believed they were in a state of siege from an oppressive and tyrannical police state. And, as demonstrated by the files recovered, those fears had some basis in reality. The leaked files exposed to a shocked nation that the FBI were engaging in illegal activities and surveillance against law-abiding citizens.

It’s a superbly well-made film – a class act, and amongst other things assembles some phenomenal footage from the era of a world that had one foot in the fifties and one in the eighties. A shambolic society beaten down and directionless from the strain of social division, in particular from the Vietnam war. This break-in was not only indicative of its time but also arguably the beginning of the end for the cynical old guard and the final nail in the coffin of the career of FBI head snooper J. Edgar Hoover.

Hating Breitbart (2012)

Andrew Breitbart was the teddy bear-like new media guru who became integral to Conservative activism after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He was the unofficial spokesman of the Tea Party movement and crucial to the founding of what became known as the ‘alt right’. After helping found Drudge Report and HuffPost he spun off his own news website and was possibly the biggest thorn in the side of the Obama administration as a pundit. It was Breitbart who broke the Weiner sexting scandal story that would eventually contribute significantly to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election loss. That makes it all the more coincidental that he suddenly dropped dead in 2012.

Unfortunately this film is not really worthy of its mercurial subject. While it gets there by the second half, finally jumping into the nitty gritty of Breitbart’s pugnacious activism with the Andre Carson/ John Lewis ’N’-word issue, the first half is way too slow, hanging around its subject reality TV-style in an uncritically fawning attitude that is tedious. There are also not really enough insights into the nuts and bolts of his online methodology, that was somewhat revolutionary at the time, and how he brought it to bear on the causes that fired him up. It’s a bit of a glorified home video in the final analysis, with inadequate depth and variety of perspective.

Nevertheless because of its subject matter, and because it provides a unique window into a zeitgeist, this doco is still really fun and absorbing to watch. Overly familiar to its subject and with not enough of the real substance of Breitbart nor the spice of hearing from his political opponents it may be, yet so far it is the only serious onscreen attempt to profile a man whose career crystallised the change from old media to new media, and who in the process became incredibly influential and shone very brightly for a brief moment in time.

Executive Action (1973), The Assassination of President Kennedy (1978) & The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1988-2003)

JFK assassination triple-header! These films seem to have been made before good posters were a thing. But despite that, these are the three to watch – a movie and two documentaries, if you want to go into greater depth about the 1963 coup d’etat (state takeover) in the USA that deposed President John Kennedy and replaced him with his arch-enemy Lyndon B Johnson, in order for Johnson to reverse the policy direction of the US Government thus launching the Vietnam war from which Johnson’s family stood to make $25m.

Watch them in order, as there’s an escalation of detail. ‘Executive Action’ is a lean and mean play-by-play of how the conspiracy to murder the President developed. It is a brilliant, brutal film. You have probably not heard of it, because it was barely publicised! Maybe too close to the truth. It’s a stripped-down, bare-bones version of the story that avoids explicitly bringing in LBJ or the CIA and many points are left deliberately vague or are inaccurate, but they were dealing with what they knew then in 1973 and from what they had at the time it is incredibly well done and has the feel of a docu-drama. Burt Lancaster plays a William Harvey-type figure, with crime movie legend Robert Ryan as the Allan Dulles-esque behind the scenes kingpin and Will Geer as the Murchison-style oil tycoon.

Then there’s the two docos. The world of Kennedy documentaries is a vast quagmire with an almost endless number of films purporting to reveal new secrets or show some new perspective. An exhaustive survey of them would take a lifetime. However watching these two gives you what you need to know. The first was made during the ‘second generation’ investigation, by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, that concluded that there was, after all, a conspiracy to kill Kennedy and more than one person had been involved in the shooting. Like the report, that exposed the 1964 Warren Commission as having been a whitewash (that in fact to a considerable extent the Warren Commissioners themselves were the killers!) the doc is incisive and devastating in blowing the murderers’ crude deception apart.

The grand-daddy of them all though and final climax to all onscreen meditations on the Kennedy assassination is the landmark British-made documentary series ‘The Men Who Killed Kennedy’. This is a 9-part epic that goes into depth about a whole array of issues relating to the coup from start to finish. It is not perfect, for example it gives screen time to some witnesses that are not now considered credible such as Ed Hoffman, Beverley Oliver, Ruth Paine and Judith Baker. It also could use an update as the last episode was made in 2003 so the series does not include new evidence that has come to light in the last 20 years, in particular Howard Hunt’s bombshell confession. But this is incidental. To all intents and purposes the murder is solved in this series. (If you want to skip to the ending, just watch Episode 9!)

All in all this is a powerful and important body of work that chronicles an event that as one witness describes it ‘nullified’ American democracy and enslaved the American people to a gang of criminals. On this day the USA became a banana republic and so it will remain until the truth is shouted from the rooftops that ‘the criminal Lyndon Johnson murdered JFK in a dirty coup d’etat for venal personal gain’. For America ever to recover there would need to be a genuine truth and reconciliation process about this issue, bringing the truth to light and unveiling the culprits publicly and for the record. And how about a memorial in the middle of the parking lot behind the picket fence with the names of the over 100 Americans murdered by the perpetrators of this coup? Many of them honest, upstanding and brave citizens simply doing their duty to their country. Indeed, one positive that comes out of this story is the great character of citizenry that was (before 1963) inherent in the United States and Texas population. The leader that achieves such feats of justice and openness will be a permanent hero of the Republic.

Until then this loathsome crime is a black stain of guilt and shame that dishonors every American.

Citizen Cohn (1992) & Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (2019)

This double-bill is the bizarre and disturbing story of Roy Cohn, a key figure in postwar American homosexual fascism. Cohn was one of those people who had his fingers in a lot of pies in the 20th Century. Anything to do with corruption and dirty tricks from the fifties to the eighties, Cohn was probably involved. He got his start being the hatchet man for Joe McCarthy during the 1950s anti-Communist ‘witch-hunts’ for which he beat out Bobby Kennedy as Chief Counsel.

During the later fifties and sixties he continued on as a Nixon advisor and became an arch enemy of the Kennedys, thereafter moving into private practice in New York as an underworld lawyer representing mobsters. The movie mainly deals with this early period in his life, persecuting the likes of literary legend Dashiell Hammett and contributing to the eventual downfall of McCarthy. It’s a lurid and raucous tale told with gusto. Cohn is played by James Woods, obviously.

The latter half of Cohn’s story towards the end of his life is related in one of two recent documentaries about him, probably made because of his role as Donald Trump’s lawyer and a not inconsiderable influence on the young real estate tycoon. It was Cohn who ‘fixed’ things with the mob for Trump to build Trump Tower. Honourable mention goes to Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on the same subject (‘Where’s My Roy Cohn’), also excellent and maybe more in-depth. This one is the livelier of the two though.

By all accounts Cohn was a loathesome monster, a moral vacuum with a lust for power and a Hitlerian hatred of those he considered leftists or who might threaten to expose or embarrass his homosexual tastes and peculiar personal habits. His motivation appears to have been metaphorically to ‘avoid the gas chambers by aiding the Nazis’. The influence he wielded during his life was regrettably substantial and he managed to evade justice until close to the end of it.

The Red Pill (2016)

The most controversial documentary you will ever see! Few films genuinely have the capacity to re-align your world view and actually blow your mind. This is one of those. Probably the most controversial doc since Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, this film has opened up a can indeed a whole shipping crate of worms since its release in 2016.

Feminist Cassie Jaye looks into the men’s rights movement. That’s pretty much the very simple premise of the film. We follow her investigation. But the results turn out to be very very far from what she and what we the viewer expect. The journey is astonishing, challenging, really causing a cognitive dissonance of significant proportions for most viewers, including this one. The feeling of being truly challenged and fundamentally having to re-examine your preconceptions in real time is actually quite unsettling, hence the virulent storm of hate reactions against this movie. However most of that hatred is directed towards what people think it is going to be, not what it is.

The irony is that Cassie is as mild-mannered and delightful an investigative reporter as you could possibly wish for. There is nothing radical or controversial about her. Many wish to reject and impugn their idea of what the film is without actually seeing it and encourage others to do the same, in order to prevent people from watching the film for themselves and being informed, such is its incendiary power. For those who are open-minded though, I can only advise that if you want to see something truly thought-provoking and out of the box, take a look at this movie. It is not called the Red Pill for nothing. Strap in!

The Panama Deception (1992)

This is an oldie but a goodie. Most documentaries more than a few decades old especially political ones are slow-moving and dull, but this sharply-edited expose rips along at a snappy pace throwing information at you almost before you can take it. It is essentially a history of the United States Imperial involvement in Panama, from the initial takeover of the ‘Canal Zone’ under Teddy Roosevelt in the 1900s (“I took it”, says Roosevelt) through the whole Bush, CIA, drug-dealing, Noriega, Nicaragua years of the 70s and 80s, culminating in the 1989 attack that was a first dress rehearsal for the Bush dynasty’s smash and grab foreign invasion model, to be repeated in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This peppy and waste-no-time slice of hardcore attack news seems to take its style from the high-tech weaponry used for the first time in this invasion like the Blackhawk and Apache helicopter, stealth fighter, Humvee and Wehrmacht-like PASGT helmet.

Exactly what the murky details of the USA’s covert activities in Central America during the 80s were in what seemed to be a ‘war for drugs’ down there is always a complex subject that is hard to grasp clearly. Well, this film presents the whole thing exceptionally straightforwardly and simply. If you are interested in knowing the basics of what all happened, here it is.

What Killed Michael Brown? (2020)

The Black Lives Matter movement of Summer 2020 is finally dealt with comprehensively and in-depth in this sobering documentary. This is a powerful, dramatic and inspirational shout out to all Americans. One of the best if not the best studies of US race relations in screen history. The scope is vast, the tone deeply wise and honorable.

This is a serious one. It focuses on the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That was the kernel of the BLM movement, so it is highly instructive though painful to investigate the dynamics of the whole case in detail. This is done exhaustively as a lead-in to a review of the history of the African-American journey since the Civil War that covers the Civil Rights movement, the ghettos and drug issues of the 70s and 80s, the Obama presidency and more.

It deals with public perceptions and media bias and misinformation. So much so that the San Francisco-based Social Media have attempted to suppress this film. And why wouldn’t they? It raises complex and disturbing questions about just who is manipulating real events like these for political gain and profit, by misdirecting the understandable anger of the victims and their families towards the manipulators’ own political enemies, whether or not they are the culprits of the crime.

This movie tackles one of the toughest questions in American society, and it takes it head-on without shirking. Really it’s the entire history and meaning of the USA. Shelby Steele is a magnificent and dignified narrator and host. For once we get to hear the voices of black people discussing and dealing with their own issues with leadership and gravitas. It drives home the shocking truth that we almost never hear that perspective in the mainstream media. This film is a masterpiece of sustained intensity and a passionate call out to all Americans: a call to honor.