Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi has a special empathy for marginalized or forgotten Americans — and I don’t just mean President George W. Bush, the subject of her breakout documentary. Her best work has ranged from a portrait of disgraced evangelical minister Ted Haggard to the daily lives of children whose families live in motels across from Disneyland. Thanks to a steady working relationship with HBO, she is able to crank out a project every year or so with an efficiency that must be envied in her field.
She’s also capable of a delivering a clunker, which is what we get with the lukewarm “Fall to Grace,” her 47-minute film about Jim McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who resigned in 2004 when he was caught having an extramarital affair with a man. In a dramatic news conference that would foreshadow so many like it in the next decade — straight or gay — McGreevey came out, fessed up and resigned. (Remember? “And so my truth is that I am a gay American. . . .”)
It’s up for debate whether McGreevey is a subject anyone’s still interested in. Even his contentious divorce from his second wife, Dina, has been picked clean; he wrote his memoir, she wrote hers, and they separately reported for tell-all duty on Oprah’s couch. It’s up to Pelosi to convince us that McGreevey’s second life — he spends his time working with and ministering to women in New Jersey’s penal system while he pursues ordination as an Episcopal priest — is anything more than a “whatever happened to . . . ?” trivia question.
In “Fall to Grace” (airing Thursday night), Pelosi finds McGreevey, 55, happily partnered, living in a huge house, doing his good deeds. Though he claims to not miss the limelight of politics, he still enjoys the sound of self-promotion — a weakness he readily admits.
Together, Pelosi and McGreevey make for a pair of Chatty Cathys. She follows him to the group counseling sessions he moderates at the prison, where he sits in supportive awe while the convicts read aloud their autobiographical floetry. “Why do you want to be here?” Pelosi asks McGreevey in her typically brash style. “Of all the places that you could be, with your fancy education, why do you want to be here?”
His eyes light up with the recognition of a generously pitched softball as he launches into a sincere display of his own humility and recompense. What Pelosi has here is the start of a more meaningful film about second chances and forgiveness, but what she ends up with looks more like a greeting card.
Onward then to another of New Jersey’s notable sons: Philip Roth, the award-winning novelist, who gets the tender, loving “American Masters” treatment Friday night on PBS.
Roth, who just turned 80 and told a French magazine last year that he’s done writing novels, dutifully walks filmmakers William Karel and Livia Manera through his biography and literary triumphs, mindfully noting the torturous low points and self-doubt we require of all stories about writers.
With his healthy ego mostly and politely in check, Roth talks of his parents, his education, his early successes. “Everything people perceived in [‘Portnoy’s Complaint’] they now perceived in me,” he recalls of his instant celebrity when his provocative (and most famous) novel was released in 1969. People on the street would call out to him: “Hey, Portnoy! Leave it alone.”
Here, too, the chance for a more robust documentary succumbs to the act of delivering a valentine. The people summoned to describe Roth (including New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, author Jonathan Franzen and gal pal Mia Farrow) bring both the insight and the platitudes of admiration and friendship. It’s up to Roth to provide the dark shadings to his own story, to really get in there and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of his body of work.
“Shame isn’t for writers,” he tells us. “Shame won’t do. I feel plenty of shame in my own life, don’t get me wrong, [but] when I sit down to write, I’m free from shame.”
(47 minutes) premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.
(90 minutes) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on WETA. (Airs at 9:35 p.m. on MPT.)