Most awards are political in nature, but that was literally the case last week when the documentaries “Hillary” and “Becoming” were named among this year’s Emmy nominations.
The series and film about former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama – one a four-parter from Hulu looking back on Clinton’s career, the other a Netflix doc following Obama on her U.S. tour promoting her 2018 memoir – were pretty ordinary portraits of extraordinary women.
That’s why, for me, it’s hard to see the nominations as anything but a nod to the subjects themselves rather than the filmmakers’ achievements in portraying them. It’s as if they were saying: Thank heavens for Hillary and Michelle in this tragic time when Joe Exotic is in the White House.
Neither work would make my list of top documentaries of 2020, and I’ll be rooting for “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time” and “The Last Dance” in their respective Emmy categories come awards night on September 20. Yes, I enjoyed both “Hillary” and “Becoming,” but then, I’ve never chanted for Clinton’s incarceration or demanded to see the birth certificate of Obama’s husband.
Anyone in the latter camp would never dream of watching such documentaries, presumably preferring to either get back to Fox News or seek out something more to their taste – like a biography of Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan (and good luck finding one of those on HBO Max).
Sadly, much like politics itself, very few political documentary subjects are bipartisan these days. In fact, you don’t need to be a mind reader to know someone’s politics if they have a favorite political documentary. I guess documentary filmmaking just draws left-wingers and liberals the same way the making of wedding cakes seems to attract homophobes.
Naturally, there are a few right-wing filmmakers – though it feels a little generous to call someone like Dinesh D’Souza a “filmmaker”; conspiracy film theorist would perhaps be more accurate.
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I’m guessing my favorite political documentary of all time, 1993’s “The War Room,” would be unbearable to GOPers. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ fly-on-the-wall doc looks at Bill Clinton’s triumphant 1992 campaign led by James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, and Carville’s speech to staffers on the eve of the election never fails to bring a tear to the eye. But I’m sure hardened Republicans would prefer to jump out of a plane rather than watch it as an in-flight movie; after all, it’s a film that celebrates Democratic values even more than democratic ones.
It works the other way too, of course. I’ve never been able to watch the TV drama “Brexit: The Uncivil War” (2019), even though it was written by one of my favorite modern playwrights, James Graham. I can’t bear the thought of anything portraying the architect of Britain’s EU exit, Dominic Cummings, in anything other than the dimmest of lights. I’m sure many had the same problem with Oliver Stone’s “W.”
All of which makes the new HBO film “The Swamp” a particularly intriguing documentary: one by two left-leaning filmmakers that isn’t afraid to show its right-wing protagonists in a surprisingly positive light.
Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme’s film looks at the dysfunctional political system that is Congress and asks, how did we get to this? And why, despite Joe Exot – uh, Donald Trump’s promises during his 2016 campaign to drain that swamp are things now worse than ever?
The filmmakers focus on five congressmen – and yes, frustratingly, they are all men, though ex-Rep. Katie Hill makes the briefest of appearance toward the end – who have all taken various stances against lobbyists and refused to accept money from interest groups. A word of warning: The documentary was shot throughout 2019, so you’re going to hear the word “impeachment” more times than Alex Jones says “conspiracy” during one of his InfoWars shows.
The main protagonist is Rep. Matt Gaetz (a Florida Republican), and if you’re aware of him, you may have already made up your mind about “The Swamp.” I must confess that my interest in the film was not exactly sky-high when I saw that his smug visage was going to be front and center.
Yet while I didn’t come out of “The Swamp” with any more respect for Republican lawmakers than when I went in (okay, maybe a smidgen in a couple of cases), I did find the film and Gaetz equally fascinating.
For those living in blissful ignorance, he’s the rent-a-quote congressman who’s a permanent fixture on Fox News and other news outlets, singing (or should that be dog-whistling?) Trump’s praises – which, of course, immediately undercuts his otherwise persuasive arguments about something being rotten in the still-not-a-state of D.C.
When we see the permanently preppy Gaetz engaged in phone conversations with the president – whose name is saved as “POTUS” on Gaetz’s iPhone – he looks for all the world like a long-lost Trump child desperate for any kind of attention and affirmation from daddy. (Get on line, Matt. Don Jr., Eric and Tiffany are way ahead of you.)
I had to force myself to separate “Gaetz the infuriating Trump cheerleader” from “Gaetz the uncowed congressman” who refuses to take the corporate dollar, preferring to seek small donations from supporters à la Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He also earns credit here for bipartisan initiatives such as his work with Rep. Ro Khanna (a California Democrat) to rein in a president’s powers when it comes to sending U.S. troops into battle overseas.
Gaetz smirkingly describes his political stance as “partisan-bipartisan fluid” – though “douchebag-decent fluid” might be a more apt description.
Other GOP congressmen in the documentary include Thomas Massie (Kentucky) and Ken Buck (Colorado). The latter is from the Freedom Caucus and constantly seems pissed at everything that happens in the Capitol.
Massie, meanwhile, is probably the most likable of the three Republicans featured, constantly revealing himself to be one of the nerdiest men in politics with his references to “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.” (“DC Universe” probably means something entirely different to him than his fellow lawmakers.)
For instance, he explains that he calls his Congress pin “Precious” because “it affects how you think – you can come here as a hobbit and put this thing on and become Gollum in very short order.”
Massie also details how lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expected to raise money for their party: “Glorified telemarketers” is his description of having to cold-call rich supporters. And he mentions how he was recently listed 437th on the roster of top fundraisers in Congress. When Gaetz reasonably points out that there are only 435 lawmakers in the House, Massie notes that Guam and Puerto Rico sit as nonvoting members and raised more than he did.
For any Democrats watching, don’t worry if you start to warm to Gaetz, Massie or Buck: They will each do at least one thing guaranteed to infuriate you. For any Republicans watching, congratulations on finally finding a political documentary on HBO in which GOPers aren’t automatically presented as comic book villains. Savor this moment.
Though “The Swamp” focuses almost exclusively on its handful of congressmen and their attempts to avoid “whoring themselves out,” as Massie indelicately puts it, the film also features one notable talking head: Harvard law professor and constitutional expert Lawrence Lessig. The only thing you need to know about his liberal credentials is that he once featured in an episode of “The West Wing,” portrayed by Christopher Lloyd.
Lessig places the roots of Congress’ swampiness to two events: Newt Gingrich’s ascension to House speaker in the mid-’90 and the politicization of cable news channels a few years later, with Fox News, CNN and MSNBC each taking sides.
“The politics of hate is the most productive technique for fundraising that we have,” Lessig sighs about Gingrich’s efforts. The talk-show host doesn’t get the right of reply, which I’d normally regard as an oversight – but I’ll make an exception in windbag Newt’s case.
I’d recommend viewing “The Swamp” in tandem with the 2018 documentary “Dark Money.” While the former examines the mess in D.C., the latter focuses on Montana and how people there have fought back against corporate campaign financing in the state. You may not be surprised to learn that one phrase links both works: the Koch brothers.
Finally, for any Democrats struggling with the idea of a documentary in which Matt Gaetz is the “hero,” there is one priceless moment when a young woman on a D.C. street strolls past him and delivers her own withering verdict: “Asshole.” Truly, American democracy in action.
“The Swamp” is on Cellcom TV, Yes VOD and Sting TV from August 5; Yes Docu on Monday August 10 at 11 P.M.; and Hot 8 (and Hot VOD) on August 27 at 10 P.M. It premieres in America on HBO and HBO Max on Tuesday at 9 P.M.