Three Films You Must See Before U.S. Election Day, Including ‘537 Votes’ and ‘Totally Under Control’

‘537 Votes’ is about how Republicans ‘stole’ the 2000 presidential election, ‘The Perfect Weapon’ is a chilling look at cyberwarfare and ‘Totally Under Control’ dissects Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus

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Posters for "The Perfect Weapon," "537 Votes" and "Totally Under Control."
Posters for "The Perfect Weapon," "537 Votes" and "Totally Under Control."Credit: HBO / Neon
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Here’s what Gal Gadot should have tweeted last week to anyone complaining about her playing Cleopatra: kiss my asp.

The furor over the casting of the Israeli actress would perhaps have made more sense if she’d been chosen to play legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum – I mean, have you heard her voice in that “Imagine” video? But playing a first century B.C.E. queen who most people think looks like Liz Taylor? Sure, why not.

However, I do have a diplomatic suggestion that could calm these clearly troubled waters: In return, Rami Malek must now be cast as Yair Netanyahu in a film about his dad, Bibi – but only if the actor doesn’t think that would be too similar to his paranoid hacker role in “Mr. Robot.”

Frankly, I’m impressed folks can still get worked up over such trivial matters when the odds on them dying before any movie about the Queen of the Nile ever actually comes out are pretty good. Think I’m exaggerating? Watch some of the documentaries below and you may think otherwise…

‘The Perfect Weapon’

It’s amazing how depressed you can get in only 85 minutes. But at least watching this chilling documentary about the rise of cyberwarfare will have you changing the password from “123456” quicker than you can say DDoS.

Based on the 2018 book of the same name by New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger, this HBO film is far more entertaining than anything about MADD (mutually assured digital destruction) has any right to be.

John Maggio’s doc reveals how cyberwarfare went from not even warranting a mention in America’s global threat assessment in 2007, to being one of the top three threats on that list just five years later.

This film is a “greatest hits” look at cyberattacks, starting with the joint U.S.-Israeli operation to sabotage the centrifuges at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz a decade or so ago – the “game-changer” that established new rules of this particular game: Cyberweaponry was now officially part of a country’s military arsenal and could be used in offensive operations.

The Stuxnet story was covered in greater detail in Alex Gibney’s 2016 documentary “Zero Days,” but “The Perfect Weapon” uses it as a tasty hors d’oeuvre for its main dishes.

First up is how Tehran took revenge on casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson for his 2013 comment that America should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran. A team of Persian hackers got into the computer system at his Las Vegas Sands Corp. empire and caused an estimated $40 million of damage – a story whose scale was only revealed about 10 months after it actually happened, thus proving that what happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas these days.

Sheldon Adelson. Tehran didn't take kindly to his suggestion that the United States drop a nuclear bomb on Iran.Credit: REUTERS

Second is the no-less-remarkable story of how North Korea hacked into Sony’s computer system and made the company suffer for its decision to bankroll Seth Rogen’s comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, in the 2014 film “The Interview.”

This is how we get to enjoy the somewhat surreal sight of Rogen appearing as a talking head in the film, alongside the likes of Hillary Clinton, James Clapper (the former director of National Intelligence) and a former Pentagon chief of staff to discuss cyberattacks.

“The Perfect Weapon” also has some overlap with Gibney’s recent documentary “Agents of Chaos,” which examined Russian meddling in U.S. elections in such forensic detail. Most chilling here is Sanger’s description of Ukraine as “Vladimir Putin’s petri dish” – the place where he experiments on cyber techniques that ultimately make their way to America.

A filmgoer holding a poster of "The Interview" as the film opens in Los Angeles on December 25, 2014, defying a North Korean threat to target U.S. movie theaters.Credit: Reuters

Still think you can sleep well at night? Well, how about the fact that you don’t need to be a superpower to wreak huge havoc? For example, after North Korea humiliated Sony, the United States carried out a revenge attack by taking down the entire North Korean internet. Only problem? That was a grand total of 28 websites, highlighting the asymmetry of this particular battlefield.

Oh, and in case you’re an American still undecided about whom to vote for in November, just remember these words by President Donald Trump to Sanger and ask yourself if this is the person you really want to be dealing with such an existential threat: “Oh, the cyber. The cyber is very powerful.”

‘537 Votes’

Of the six documentaries I watched this week, “537 Votes” (also from HBO) just edged out “The Perfect Weapon” as my favorite. However, even 20 years on, this look at how George W. Bush became America’s 43rd president may still be too raw for some to watch. To put it another way, if the terms “hanging,” “dimpled” or “pregnant” chad still make your blood boil, “537 Votes” will do nothing for your mood.

What’s great about Billy Corben’s film is that it isn’t just concerned with the recount shenanigans in Bush’s victory over Democratic nominee Al Gore in Florida. As his film reminds us, the real reason Gore lost the Sunshine State was as much about his own government’s decision to deport the young refugee Elián González back to Cuba as it was about uncounted ballots in Miami-Dade County.

The federal raid in which 6-year-old Elián González was forcibly repatriated to his native Cuba and his waiting father, April 2000. The controversial decision cost Al Gore many Cuban American votes. Credit: Alan Diaz/AP

We’re given absorbing insight into the American-Cuban community, showing how the events of 2000 destroyed more than just one political career: The fact that the name “Mayor Alex Penelas” is heard as much these days as “actor Ryan Phillipe” shows how fickle the fates can be.

Corben’s film draws upon myriad comedy clips of the era – from Jon Stewart and “SNL” to “South Park” – and gives Roger Stone (billed here as “Republican Dirty Trickster”) the chance to gloat in what was arguably his finest hour before helping getting Trump elected.

Stone gleefully recalls the infamous “Brooks Brothers Riot,” in which a group of GOP operatives stormed a recount office in Miami-Dade County masquerading as concerned local voters, forcing canvassers to stop their recount efforts.

George W. Bush and Al Gore facing off at the third and final presidential debate, October 2000. Don't mention the dimpled chads.Credit: AP

His smug parting shot is one that Democrats would do well to remember over the next few weeks: “Politics is about winning.” It’s also always good to be reminded that the Democratic Party has got to stop bringing a plastic spoon to a gunfight when the Republican Party is armed with a semiautomatic, as happened in 2000.

‘Totally Under Control’

Alex Gibney’s documentary (co-directed with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger) has one goal: to paint as damning a picture as possible about the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus. In truth, that could have been achieved just by screening the words “218,000 deaths” (and counting), and listing the names of the dead on screen for two hours.

Yet while it often feels like a visual representation of seven months’ worth of reporting in The Washington Post, New York Times and the Atlantic, it’s impossible to deny the importance of assembling everything together to serve as a time capsule to show future generations how not to handle a pandemic.

I’d suggest watching it in a double bill with Steven Soderbergh’s virus movie “Contagion,” to see which one plays more like fact and which more like fiction – trust me, it’s a toss-up. (The title of the documentary comes from one of the president’s many attempts to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic – this one being uttered in late January.)

A man walking past coronavirus street art in New York, October 14, 2020. Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult watch, especially as we’re still in the midst of the crisis and there’s no end in sight. Indeed, you’re constantly aware that this is the rarest of films – one without an actual beginning, middle or end: no Patient Zero, no vaccine and more waves than a “Jaws” movie.

“Totally Under Control” was made without the cooperation of the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Department of Health and Human Services, which means we’re missing a big chunk of the story here and left waiting for the day when someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci is free to discuss the COVID “shitstorm” (a commonly used phrase here).

Dr. Anthony Fauci. His voice is sadly absent from "Totally Under Control." Credit: POOL/REUTERS

As you’d also expect, this is a somber look at an unfolding modern tragedy – so there are no TikTok videos of Sarah Cooper mimicking Trump. There is, however, a very sobering look at how South Korea tackled the pandemic and why its outcomes have been so staggeringly different to those in America: With a population of some 50 million, the Asian country has seen fewer than 500 deaths to date thanks largely to its crazy idea of letting health professionals try to solve the problem rather than politicians.

The most frustrating thing about “Totally Under Control” is that, sadly, it’s preaching to the choir (a classic super-spreader event, incidentally). Is it really going to make a MAGA cap-wearer, raging about being denied fresh air due to a tiny bit of cloth, see the error of their ways? If you think that’s possible, then perhaps I could interest you in this radical new drug guaranteed to cure the coronavirus? It’s called Clorox and it’s yours for just $500 a bottle.

That’s not all, folks…

These are busy times in Documentary Land, and I saw three others this week: “What the Constitution Means to Me,” “Kingdom of Silence” and “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty.”

The pick of the bunch, “Constitution” (Amazon Prime Video), may have a slightly off-putting title, but it’s not some dry documentary featuring a bunch of originalists like Amy Coney Barrett unsuccessfully trying to remember the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Rather, this is Marielle Heller’s filmed account of the Broadway play in which writer-performer Heidi Schreck animatedly discusses elements of the U.S. Constitution as they relate to her family history.

What starts out as a tame recreation of a scholarship speech she used to give in Washington state when Schreck was 15 soon becomes something far more powerful, personal and moving – reflecting on how women have been wilfully neglected and mistreated by both the Constitution and the Supreme Court over the years.

Heidi Schreck in "What the Constitution Means to Me."Credit: Joan Marcus/AP

Schreck’s a great performer and there are some fascinating twists along the way in this captivating 100-minute doc.

Rick Rowley’s “Kingdom of Silence,” meanwhile, is a weird hybrid that can’t decide if it’s a documentary about murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi or U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations over the years.

The blunt truth is that the life of Khashoggi isn’t interesting enough to merit an entire documentary. He was a diplomat-turned-writer who had a habit of being on the wrong side of history (tracking Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan; advocating for the Iraq War while working in Washington).

The one thing that catapulted Khashoggi into world headlines – his gruesome death at the hands of Saudi killers in Istanbul in 2018 – is depicted in a sensitive manner. But there’s no discussion of what happened afterward to his killers or how this has impacted U.S.-Saudi relations (if at all).

A Turkish protester holding an image of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on the second anniversary of his murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, October 2020. Credit: Emrah Gurel/AP

There’s a great documentary crying out to be made about Saudi Arabia, but this isn’t quite it.

Finally, there’s the three-part BBC documentary “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty,” chronicling the latter-day life and crimes – sorry, times – of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.

Honestly, if you want to see a great show about the Murdochs, just watch HBO’s “Succession,” in which the desperate Roy siblings feud over their aging father’s media empire.

This documentary, in contrast, is a fairly bland look at the three Murdoch siblings and their varying fortunes while trying to follow in Dad’s footsteps and build the media version of the Death Star.

The documentary picks up the story in 1995, when Murdoch Sr. was 65 and starting to make his succession plans. However, the series lacks true insight into what was happening behind the scenes at News International in Britain and Fox in America.

Three members of the Murdoch family:Lachlan, left, Rupert and James. Credit: LEON NEAL / AFP

And with no formal involvement from any of the Murdochs, we’re left with a rather anemic show relying on old footage of the family and a few new interviews with divisive British figures like Brexiteer Nigel Farage and journalists Piers Morgan and Andrew Neil (divisive because while some people hate these men, others absolutely despise them).

The best episode is the second installment, focusing on the phone-hacking scandal that led to the 2011 closure of sleazy weekly tabloid the News of the World – which one of its former hacks describes as “like having a division of the SS at your beck and call.” At least we now know where Murdoch got the idea for Fox News.

“The Perfect Weapon” is out now on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD AND Sting TV (and on HBO Max in America). “537 Votes” is on Yes VOD and Sting TV from Thursday and on Yes Docu on October 28 at 10 P.M (and on HBO in America on Wednesday 21). “Totally Under Control” is available on VOD services such as Apple TV, and on Hulu in the U.S. from Tuesday. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is on Prime Video. “Kingdom of Silence” is on Showtime in America, while “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty” is on Yes Docu at 10 P.M. on October 18-20, and also on Yes VOD and Sting TV.

This article was updated on October 21 to correct the name of the directors of "Totally Under Control."  

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