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Reviewing Seven Summer Political Documentaries | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
HBO // PBS // VICE

Reviewing Seven Summer Political Documentaries

It’s an election year, and if instead of watching the two party conventions this month you’d prefer a more cinematic view of politics, various streaming services and other platforms have launched a series of political documentaries throughout this summer. A look at a few of the notable ones:

The Swamp

This documentary, which debuted on HBO in early August and was directed by the Get Me Roger Stone team of Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, comes at politics from a rather odd angle: About a third of it is taken up with earnest commentary, from talking heads like Lawrence Lessig, about how money is corrupting politics. The other two thirds are taken up by three current Republican members of Congress, led by arch-Trump sycophant Matt Gaetz, a singularly ridiculous figure who has been described as looking like “a sentient frat paddle” by Jon Lovett. 

As The Swamp follows Gaetz and his colleagues during impeachment and other events, while establishing that while the Florida Congressman doesn’t accept SuperPAC money, he’s instead taken a different and arguably worse tack of shadiness, in making himself a full-on brown-noser of the president. As a result, Gaetz is seen confronted multiple times by people on the streets of Washington, including a guy who happens to be my good friend. 

There are various howlers; Lessig says at one point of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN that, “up until 2002, they’re basically the same,” which is very much not true. And while Gaetz revealed earlier this summer that he’s raising a heretofore never-mentioned young Cuban man as his son, there’s no indication of that anywhere in the film.

Stockton on My Mind

Another August documentary about a young political figure is on the other side of the aisle, but is also an HBO project (you can stream it on HBO Max). Stockton On My Mind looks at Michael Tubbs, the young, Democratic, African-American mayor of Stockton, Calif., who pushed several cutting-edge policies, including universal basic income. 

The film, directed by Marc Levin, also delves into Tubbs’ background, including that his father has spend most of his life in prison, and Tubbs’ connection to his hometown. 

It’s an effective portrayal of Tubbs, even if it feels at times like a campaign commercial. I’m just wondering, though, why the film doesn’t mention that Tubbs was once arrested for DUI, prior to his election as mayor, especially when he talks about his longtime fear of also ending up in prison.  

We Are the Radical Monarchs

This documentary, directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton and having debuted on PBS earlier this summer, is going to make right-wing heads explode. It’s about a group of girls in a Girls Scouts-like troupe in Oakland who are given badges for their understanding of progressive causes, including LGBTQ rights, the environment, and more. 

It’s an effective portrayal of the group, and you don’t have to imagine Fox News attacking this program, as there’s footage of Fox & Friends doing just that. 

On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries

Another HBO Max documentary, this film follows a group of women reporters for CNN, as they covered the 2020 Democratic primaries on the campaign – back when there still was a campaign trail. 

The doc, while feeling at times like a commercial for HBO’s corporate sibling CNN, provides some compelling portraits of these reporters’ day-to-day lives working as “embeds” with specific presidential candidates. But On the Trail is especially valuable as a backdoor history of the primary season, of such significant events – remember the Iowa caucus vote-counting debacle? – that happened just a few months ago, but now feel like ancient, forgotten history. 

Bernie Blackout

On The Trail, at numerous points, shows CNN footage of Bernie Sanders winning primaries, and talking heads commenting that he seemed to be winning the Democratic contest at the time. That would appear to disprove the thesis of Bernie Blackout, a Vice documentary that aired in July, and that takes a conspiratorial view of Bernie Sanders’ primary loss. 

It was all a big con, the documentary alleges, by the mainstream media, the DNC and their corporate backers who were deathly fearful of a Sanders presidency. The evidence? Mostly, it’s great deal of footage of MSNBC talking heads denouncing Sanders, and the timing of most of the non-Biden and non-Sanders candidates lining up to endorse Biden. 

I say this as someone who’s generally a fan of Bernie Sanders, and believe that he built a legitimate and very strong political movement. But the reason he lost, which the documentary eludes, is because that movement isn’t quite large enough at this point to win a Democratic primary. 

Slay the Dragon

The documentary, which recently debuted on Hulu after a festival run, is a dry, earnest liberal documentary about the evils of gerrymandering, and the quest by a plucky young activist in Michigan to try to beat it back, with partial but not complete success. 

The film is inspiring, but there’s very little in it that’s new, if you’re someone who’s been paying even a little bit of attention to these issues over the course of the last few years. And if a political documentary has a URL and call to action at the end, I automatically demote it one star. 

#UNFIT

This film, coming to theaters and VOD at the end of August, is a scattershot anti-Trump doc, featuring a variety of MSNBC fixtures and Lincoln Project co-founders, that’s centered around the somewhat questionable notion that psychiatrists should diagnose specific mental illnesses in public figures who aren’t their patients, based on how they behave on TV. 

#UNFIT branches into numerous other questions in which every single member of this film’s target audience is well-versed, including whether or not Trump is racist, and whether we can trust him with the nuclear codes. There’s even a section in which sportswriter Rick Reilly cribs from his recent book about Trump’s penchant for cheating at golf. 

Not only is this movie all over the place, but there’s very little in it that’s the slightest bit new. And not only is the notion that doctors should diagnose Trump on TV considerably dubious, but the film can’t even commit to making that its main idea. At least there’s good music, even if it sounds like a knockoff of Explosions in the Sky. 

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