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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; C01

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.

"Obama's Deal" is best seen as Chapter 2 in Kirk's ongoing analysis of Obama's personality. In last year's "Dreams of Obama," he followed the ascent of a minor Chicago politician, who gave a powerful speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, to the most coveted office in the land. And he started probing at the emerging lines of the president's personality: How tough is he? How pragmatic? How much does his rhetoric match reality? Does he compromise too much, too soon? Or is he a visionary with the rare capacity to move the obstructions of history?

Tuesday night's film takes up after the election, and Kirk, who produces two to three "Frontline" documentaries a year, will have yet more chapters. "I'm on a quest to understand him," Kirk says.

* * *

After almost 30 years with "Frontline," after producing more than 200 national television programs, Kirk's body of work reminds one of Balzac's claim to be the "secretary" to French society. He's now had the benefit of surveying Washington actors over decades-long spans. Former CIA director, George Tenet, just got more and more interesting, he says. Former vice president Dick Cheney was a recurring figure in films that analyzed torture, eavesdropping, civil liberties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the economy went into freefall, Kirk started on a three-film series -- "Inside the Meltdown," "Breaking the Bank" and "The Warning" -- that turned the lens on the nation's top financial leaders, Alan Greenspan, Hank Paulson and Larry Summers. Kirk claims not to be interested in the details of economics policy. "I don't want to know what a derivative is," he says. But this sounds like bluster, and his films sneak in a remarkable amount of arcane detail.

One film leads to another. While making "Inside the Meltdown," a stray bit of secondhand information led to the genesis of "The Warning": The deputy to Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said that Born had been explicitly warned off poking into or regulating the giant and opaque trade in derivatives. Did then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Summers really call Born and tell her he had a room full of powerful bankers with him, and they all wanted her to back off?

It is one of the most tantalizing "what if?" moments in recent history. What if the old boys' club of financial power had listened to the woman who ran a small but essential federal agency? What if the political establishment hadn't tried to steamroll Brooksley Born?

"That was a side story and it sat there, kind of radioactive for a while," says David Fanning, executive producer and founder of the "Frontline" franchise. "It was the yeast out of which the next film grew."

* * *

Kirk says he is interested in character-driven narratives, not the details of policy. But the two come together, in films such as "Obama's Deal" and "The Warning." Kirk believes character isn't just about storytelling. It is a clue to how people will behave, and ultimately a good predictor of where the country is going. His focus on people is a historiographical choice.

Kirk's film style is remarkably old-fashioned in many ways. He relies on the in-depth interview, he's not afraid of talking heads and he makes judicious use of the Voice of God narrator (Will Lyman, who has the most portentous pipes on television). Only very rarely does Kirk allow his own questioning to be part of the narrative. There is, according to Fanning, plenty of great television left on the cutting-room floor, as Kirk eschews dramatic or testy exchanges in favor of expository ones.

"It is very easy to find naughty footage," says Fanning. And very easy to edit it into a polemic. But Kirk prefers a moody polish to the edginess that dominates so many public affairs documentaries.

His Washington films are filled with the spectacle of Washington, with motorcades and the halls of power. He loves architecture, and flies cameraman Ben McCoy regularly to Washington to generate the background shots that help flesh out his work. He isn't embarrassed to use what both he and Fanning jokingly call "the guilty building," an ominous-looking shot of a government office or Manhattan tower. It is a seductive artifice and remarkably addictive. Lyman's sonorous narration can make almost anything sound urgent and terrifying, and McCoy's images make Washington seem sexy. Even the most jaded Washingtonian feels a frisson at the site of a screeching motorcade. If newspapers do the rough draft of history, Kirk does a very smooth and fast-paced second draft.

Kirk's films are a quiet critique of how journalism and public culture are changing. Often, he sets up a dissonance between sound and image: A babble of cable-television financial advisers while the camera pans over a serene and seductive Washington. Taken together, they tell us: The economy is tanking, and these guys are idiots.

"In the beginning, we called it the white noise," he says. "When you open the oven, there's that first blast of heat." That fiddling-while-the-Republic-burns chatter, in a Kirk film, feels like the end of democracy, the silliness, the distractions, the shouting, the demagoguery.

"It's a counterpoint to the dinner party thing," he says.

The dinner party is an odd metaphor. Kirk's fantasy of a quiet, urbane place where people in-the-know talk for truth, not victory, has all but disappeared in Washington. But it's an old ideal, as old as Dolley Madison packing guests into her weekly "squeeze," where the fractious society of early Washington found a controlled environment in which to mingle with each other, regardless of ideology or enmity. If you can't stand the heat, Kirk seems to be saying, then by all means stay out of the kitchen, and welcome to the dining room.

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