For Real?

February 09, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

To date, the best movie I have seen this year is Touching the Void. Many critics are mistakenly referring to this as a documentary, but, based on the rules of factual filmmaking, it's not. More than 50% of what's on screen is an impressive re-creation of events, using actors to play the parts of the protagonists. There is certainly a documentary element to the project (the "talking heads" narration by the expedition survivors), but the final result is a hybrid of narrative and documentary techniques, and should not be lumped into either category.

All too often, the need to classify results in a movie being herded into a category where it does not belong. The most (in)famous of these films is Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Despite not being a documentary (Moore is well known for staging scenes and engaging in creative editing), the film nevertheless managed to capture the Best Documentary Oscar (which led to the low point of last year's awards ceremony). In fact, as a representation of facts, Bowling for Columbine leaves a lot to be desired, and much has been written about the inaccuracies and misrepresentations included in the text. What the film is, is a compelling opinion piece - a cinematic essay that establishes a thesis and spends two hours putting together a case for it. Even Moore's unforgivable, bully-like treatment of an ailing Charlton Heston cannot obscure the skill with which he assembles his arguments. Whether we buy them or not is another matter. Bowling for Columbine succeeds, although perhaps not in the way Moore intended. His goal was to convert audiences. He didn't do that, but he got people talking, which, in my opinion, is a more impressive achievement.

Moore has stated that he intends to release his next movie in the advent of the 2004 Presidential election. He wants to expose some "hard truths" about the current regime in the hopes that the electorate will turn in a different direction. What Moore ignores is that the only people who see his films are those who are pre-disposed to agree with his views. The swing voters in any election - those who are in the middle and likely to sway in either direction depending on their present circumstances - will more than likely give Moore's film a miss. And, even those small numbers who see it will be more concerned with the state of their bank account than in Moore's crusade.

Sorry for the tangent… My point is that the term "documentary" is rapidly becoming a misnomer. The Fog of War is a documentary. Capturing the Friedmans is a documentary. But Touching the Void and Bowling for Columbine are not, and it's best not to fall into the trap of lazy categorization when describing these movies. It does a disservice not only to the product, but to those who see it.

Political Views

A number of my regular correspondents enjoy trying to figure out what my political views are on subjects, and whether I'm a Democrat or Republican. So I'll "out" myself for the record: I am neither. You can consider me a fiscal conservative and social liberal. This revelation will probably confound some of those who thought they had me figured out. How have I voted in recent Presidential elections? Had I been eligible in 1984 (I was 17, but participated in a mock high school election), it would have been for Ronald Reagan. In 1988, it was for George Bush. 1992, Bush. 1996, Bill Clinton. In 2000, I was so disenchanted with both candidates that I didn't visit the polls. This year, it will be whoever runs against Bush - doesn't really matter who. (It's not so much George "nucular" Bush I have a problem with, but the unholy trinity of Chaney, Rumsfeld, and "Patriot Act" Ashcroft.)

Why write about this? Because there is a relationship between politics and reviewing. All critics bring a boatload of personal biases to every review, and one of those is where along the political spectrum they stand. Denying this would be pointless and disingenuous. Politics aren't a critical component to every review, but there are times when they can make the difference between liking and disliking a motion picture. Consider Roger Ebert's vicious attack on The Life of David Gale. Ebert was so offended by the movie's politics that he was unable to look beyond them. Some have criticized him for this, but applying a political point-of-view is a valid way to criticize a movie. Michael Medved does the same sort of thing from the other side of the aisle. I may disagree with him, but what he writes cannot be dismissed merely because his perspective is that of a conservative supporter of "family values." In any review, honesty and clarity are things I value far more than agreement.