By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009
The modern American political documentary, which can serve as a delicious magnifying glass on human behavior and attitudes, has two basic approaches. The first has value. In the hands of a documentarian committed to bringing a fresh understanding of the lives of a feverish group on the political right or left, to probing the reasons behind their activism or seething frustrations, the magnifying glass can reveal things we've never before understood. It can provide not only a window on a cultural divide but also clues to what might help bridge that divide.
Then there is the other approach. It reminds me of hot summer days in my childhood when this neighborhood kid would ask if I wanted to come and study ants and other insects under his magnifying glass, promising me and other buddies that we'd learn something. We would amble outside to the scorching sidewalk, where he would train his magnifying glass on the insects and begin happily frying them. And, dumb as it was, the rest of us would stare, transfixed. Dumb always has a market -- so long as something or somebody fries.
Within the first few minutes of Alexandra Pelosi's "Right America: Feeling Wronged -- Some Voices From the Campaign Trail," an HBO documentary debuting tonight that purports to provide "a forum" for conservative supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin "who saw their hopes and dreams evaporate in the wake of the Democratic victory" -- well, we know what kind of magnifying glass we're getting.
It's drive-by journalism, to put it charitably, a string of stupefyingly brief hit-and-run interviews with a bunch of unidentified people who we know are going to say nothing that will surprise us. By then, we've already figured out they're going to be fried by Pelosi's camera. We know they're going to sound like yahoos, often goaded, always reduced to sound bites and caricatures.
All the conventions of the smirking, winking, belittling political documentary are abided by in this film. An inordinate number of the yahoos wear T-shirts and weird caps. There is the obligatory NASCAR tailgating scene with the requisite Confederate flags and some white guys saying they'll never vote for any black man. There are a couple of campaign events sporting all-American schoolgirl choruses who sound like they're right off the "Up With People" tour bus. There is a young guy whose T-shirt, meant to deride Obama, declares "Say No to Socilism," and when Alexandra Pelosi tells him he's misspelled socialism and asks him to define it, we know he's not going to be able to, that he's going to say something way wrong and stupid -- which he does, offering that socialism is "basically, it's like the views of Hitler. It's between like communism and -- I don't know what the other word is."
In short, it's good yuks time.
The daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Pelosi carved a niche in the political documentary business with the first of her five films, "Journeys With George," an HBO venture in which she spent 18 months on the campaign trail in 1999 and 2000 with candidate George W. Bush. Politicians don't like crossing the children of Washington powerhouses: Pelosi and her camera often had face time with Bush on his campaign plane. Four years later, she employed the same cinematic methods in a documentary that followed the pack of Democratic presidential wannabes: Turn on the camera, prod a little and watch the candidates say and do awkward, funny, pompous things. Both times it basically worked.
But she looks to be in over her head here with a documentary that professes to explain why die-hard conservatives feel so aggrieved. Note: Just to turn on the camera and record the juvenility and venom at a campaign rally isn't nearly enough to capture the whys of that behavior. Except for some celebrities, we never see most of her subjects for more than a few seconds. We never enter their homes, never view what they do for a living. We never get to know their families or acquire virtually any information about their backgrounds. We don't know if anybody has been scarred by a traumatic event or recently lost a job. My gosh, with one exception, we never learn their names.
This is less a documentary than a reason for a snarky laugh track. As a reporter who spent much of 2008 writing about McCain and talking with many of his most ardent supporters, I certainly met angry conservatives along the way. A few times I was accosted by people who excoriated the media they loathed while expressing assorted fears of Obama -- their conviction that he would bring ruin to the country; that he was a rogue Middle Eastern agent; that he would seize their guns; that he would make a point of keeping the white man down.
But such opinions were a decided minority. I best remember a February day when, along with the rest of the traveling press, I watched the candidate attend rallies in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. By then, McCain was a prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination, and many of the conversations among his admirers at the Southern events were about whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would face him in the general election.
While passionate in their opposition to Democrats, most of the conservatives I met at the rallies that day expressed fascination and respect for Obama. They wouldn't be voting for him, but they felt pride in a country that at last was giving serious consideration to electing an African American. Many viewed his climb as a symbol of American social progress.
This is all to say I met very few yahoos. But that wouldn't be an adequate premise for a documentary so bent on finding subjects to put under a hot magnifying glass. They've been fried here for our amusement.
Right America: Feeling Wronged -- Some Voices From the Campaign Trail (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.