By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Al Franken: God Spoke,” Docurama, 2005]
The new doc from the makers of “The War Room” and “Startup.com,” “Al Franken: God Spoke” can be easily dismissed as bleeding-heart hagiography, just as Franken himself, like Michael Moore, can be a divisive figure even among our nation’s liberal democrats. But there’s more to that assessment than meets the eye: an integral but semi-hidden aspect to the bipartisan cultural wars is that celebrity and punditry are admirable goals for conservatives because conservatives by their very definition represent capitalistic greed, might-is-right and power-mongering. Liberals, in the abstract, represent the opposite community intercourse, sharing the wealth, justice and peace and so the very act of attaining fame and ubiquity as a talking head can be condemned as hypocrisy. It’s one of the Republicans’ many ideological dance steps to which there is no logical counter-step. If liberals like Franken and Moore are going to try to use the media to speak truth to power, the very attempt can be seen as a violation of the principles they’re trying to espouse, and, therefore, mere naked vanity.
But no one ever accuses Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly of rampaging egocentrism; it’s self-evident, and in keeping with their philosophies. In the neo-con world, bald-faced megalomania is the state to which we’re all supposed to aspire. (And do as a nation, in terms of foreign policy, and it has an official think-tank name: “American exceptionalism.”) The presumptions behind this liberal-hypocrite reasoning are all lies, of course, to use Franken’s favorite qualification it’s akin to denouncing a freedom fighter for battling an invading force in defense of his own country. (They do that as well.) The arena for the cockfight is what it is, and everyone has an equal right to step into the sawdust and starting pecking.
Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’s film captures Franken, before and after the debut of Air America, at his most glorious (making royal public sport of the confident prevarications uttered by the Orwellian mole people at Fox News and elsewhere) and at his most dubious (depressed after the 2004 election, playing with his dog). It’s not a freestanding movie so much as a brickbat tossed in a larger battle continuously being fought between the lying liars and the rest of America. (Notice I didn’t say “Democrats,” though Franken might’ve.) One more equation is evident, once you realize that our movie theaters and video shelves are thick as a brick with progressive documentaries and boast virtually no films selling a neo-con perspective. Integer #1: The mass media keeps things unquestionably simplistic and dumb (which is why Air America has a more difficult time finding listeners than Limbaugh et al.). The real political world is complex, but it must be boiled down to bytes and visceral exhortations if you expect busy, wage-stagnated, double-employed Americans to listen before they pass out on their couches.
Integer #2: Everybody’s afraid to say it, but it’s scientifically demonstrable: conservative ideology absolutely depends on the ignorance and miseducation of its populace in order to be successful. Education is its enemy. Every substantial tenet of the neo-con agenda is based in economic disparity, carelessness for your fellow man and the transformation of honest tax dollars into corporate profit; so, it all must be masqueraded and sold, duplicitously and loudly, as monosyllabic playground morality. Sum total: that conservatism, possessing by necessity the blunt public edge of a battle-axe, sells best on TV and on the radio, and liberal reasoning, which by definition aims to be fair and responsible and attentive to actual and complicated facts, does not.
Inevitably, then, the liberal messages gravitate toward feature-length movies, where the force of reality can be brought to bear on government malfeasance or the true breadth of Wal-Mart’s societal damage or Bill O’Reilly’s Stalinesque judgments and dishonest leaps of presumption. (As evidenced by the Republican Party-distributed Moore-rebuttal film “Celsius 41.11,” released in 2004, neo-cons can’t maintain common sense for the length of a feature film, much less be entertaining about it; in fact, the prolonged exposure made Charles Krauthammer and Michael Medved seem like vampires left outside too long at daybreak.) Doob and Hegedus’s film only goes so far in contributing to this dynamic, but as another body on the pig pile, it’s welcome.
As is Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels’s “Hacking Democracy,” a terrifying HBO doc about the slow ascension of computerized voting machines, and how much rank dirt has been dug up in the process about how ineptly they’re programmed and how much outrageous political skullduggery gone into the deal, leading to inevitable accusations (let’s make that “criminal charges”) about the degree to which machine-makers like Diebold had been conceiving of these modern miracles as election-stealers from their very inception. Sometime before the primaries begin, the movie should be seen by every client of American democracy.
“Al Franken: God Spoke” (Docurama) will be available on DVD April 24th; “Hacking Democracy” (Docurama) is now available on DVD.