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 Breitbart.com 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.

JFK (1991) & Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy (1992)

Well, here it is. Most people have already seen this movie but here it is none the less. We all know the CIA and the mafia did it! George HW Bush was running Oswald in Dallas and Howard Hunt was in charge of the death squad at the grassy knoll. But if you want to see every detail replayed in excruciating and kaleidoscopic detail, here it is.

In terms of who actually pulled the trigger on the particular bullet, of the many fired during the attack, that ended Kennedy’s life, the story goes that it was either David Ferrie, played in the film by Joe Pesci, a member of the group apoplectically enraged by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, or Frank Sturgis, one of the Watergate burglars. Many others were named in Hunt’s deathbed confession including a French gunman. Some also credit James Files’ detailed confession to being the ‘badge man’ behind the picket fence. As for the chief conspirators, most sources are in agreement that front and center and essential to the plot was none other than Lyndon Baines Johnson himself. Cui bono applies here, it seems.

The movie boasts Gary Oldman’s career-making turn as Oswald, Kevin Kostner in full crusader mode as Garrison and a whole cornucopia of other colorful performances from the likes of Kevin Bacon, Vincent D’Onofrio and Tommy Lee Jones. Really, who isn’t in this film?

Oliver Stone’s magnum opus is not his best work by a long shot, but it is an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza with classic performances by character actors at the top of their game and with few apparent budget restrictions; a garish, overblown melodrama that pulls out all the tricks Hollywood can muster and then some. While admittedly that makes it somewhat scattered in focus, it remains the defining cinematic document of one of the key moments in the USA’s descent into totalitarian oligarchy.

Also be sure to check out the companion documentary, made in 1992 but not released until 2013! Unexpectedly excellent.

2016: Obama’s America (2012)

This became the highest-grossing documentary in US history when released in 2012, and snowballed to have such an effect on American public opinion that its maker the Conservative author and academic Dinesh D’Souza was actually jailed on dubious charges two years later.

D’Souza’s films are party political broadcasts, diatribes really. He is unashamedly promoting the Conservative and also the Republican point of view. At times these have been at odds but in our day, on the subject of Obama and the Democrats, they are in harmony. Hence the gleefully partisan nature of his films. Big-budget, somewhat over-the-top and occasionally cringeworthily unselfconscious.

This one is an artistically edited, slow-building crescendo of meticulous deconstruction that unpacks the conventional Obama narrative and argues that in fact he represents a radical anti-colonial and Marxist/ Islamic movement that cleverly exploited American aspirations for racial reconciliation in order to reach the White House. Whatever you think of this view or of D’Souza’s polemical style, it is a powerful and thought-provoking documentary whose impact is hard to dismiss and whose predictions largely came true.

John Adams (2008)

Tom Hooper is one of the finest film-makers working today and this miniseries is truly a phenomenal piece of work. If you really want to get to know the founders of the United States in a friendly, up-close-and-personal way and in a relaxed setting, this is the show for you. It succeeds in humanising them into real people. They even attempt to get the accents right – an odd but effective mix of aristocratic English and Scottish with a bit of Dutch in there.

Of course it’s a paean, a tribute, there’s not much serious criticism here nor any attempt to dive into controversial issues like slavery and adultery (we’re looking at you, Thomas Jefferson!) It’s all very tastefully and artfully done in the manner of the best English-style period costume dramas.

Nevertheless, this is probably the greatest cinema yet made on the American Revolution.

The Social Dilemma (2020)

‘Is this normal? Or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?’ asks Tristan Harris, one of the ex big tech employees/whistleblowers whose revelations are the subject of this intriguing new documentary. Do you feel like you are being manipulated and controlled by social media? Well that’s because you are! It’s that simple, and in fact, that’s what social media is all about.

It wants engagement, it wants activity, it wants growth, it wants to ‘change you on behalf of commercial interests’, it wants your soul! And some engineers and designers are now speaking out. ‘We’re all lab rats’ they say. ‘We can affect real-world behaviour and emotions, without ever triggering the user’s awareness’. That’s one of many great quotes from this illuminating expose. ‘There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software’ is another. What about this one: ‘fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news’! Intentional addiction-creating, AI-modelling, ‘persuasive technology’. It’s all here. Social Media is the ‘Soma’ of our current civilisation.

This doc is a very timely update in a world where the political opinions and activism of millions of people around the world seem to be directly under the control of a small number of designers in and around San Francisco. Polarisation, radicalisation and ‘outragification’ come from this. Kudos to Harris and the others for sharing this information with us and starting a conversation that is vitally important for our society to have.