'Frontline' producer Michael Kirk, churning out in-depth political documentaries

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Journalists, politicians and bureaucrats who have worked with "Frontline" producer Michael Kirk know the drill: His interviews run long, sometimes three hours long, and he is rigorous, even obsessive about getting the chronology straight. If he's working in Washington, he sets up camp at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, where his cameraman constructs tight head shots while Kirk sits knee to knee with his subjects.

The results are sumptuous. The players interviewed in Tuesday night's hour-long documentary, "Obama's Deal," are seen as if there's a blurry Douglas Sirk film playing in the background. The light is warm, the colors saturated and the room has a wood-paneled, clubby richness.

The goal, says Kirk, is to reproduce the ambiance of a dinner party. He looks for six to eight central players, who, through the course of the film, come to seem in dialogue with one another, helping to explain the complicated interplay of politics, economics and history.

"Put them all in a similar background, so there's no influence," he explains. "Cast them in the best possible light and give respect to their opinion."

As regular "Frontline" viewers will recognize, this flattering approach turns down the volume, metaphorically, on the news. If Kirk is throwing a virtual dinner party, he's also hosting an idealized one.

"It's not a food fight," he says.

* * *

Dr. Johnson once asked his dinner guests if they preferred to talk for victory, or for truth -- if they came to argue or find answers. In an age of incessant self-promotion, prickly and oversize egos, and perpetually on-message politicians, Kirk gets people to speak in a normal tone of voice, without hissy fits, gotcha tricks and other moments of great television that define so much of what passes for documentary programming.

In "Obama's Deal," he challenges viewers exhausted by the health-care debate of the past year. This is ticktock journalism, or as Kirk calls it, "history on horseback." But a different landscape emerges on horseback than when one reads the first draft of history.

Vice President Biden warns Obama not to touch this particular third rail, but the president goes forward. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel comes to the process with stinging memories of the Clinton administration's failure to pass health-care reform. Tom Daschle fails to make it through the confirmation process and Ted Kennedy dies. Which leaves the conservative Democratic Sen. Max Baucus with outsize power to shape the legislation. The ups and downs of the legislative process are condensed into a bumpy ride.

Much of this was out there, in one form or another, but Kirk gives it drama and sharpens the daily blur of most reporting. Although Kirk says he likes to take on stories about a year "after the journalistic circus has left town," he was still working on "Obama's Deal" through the dramatic vote on March 21.

"We didn't have an ending three weeks ago," he says. He didn't finish the film until last Monday.


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