Breadth and Circuses: Political Documentaries New and Old at Full Frame 2016

This year’s thematic program at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival showcases American politics, as does its opening night film, ‘Weiner,’ and together they present a narrative relevant to the 2016 presidential elections.
By  · Published on April 9th, 2016

“The Kardashians are coming to D.C.!” shouted Kevin Vigilante after Thursday’s Full Frame screening of Taking on the Kennedys, the 20-year-old documentary following his 1994 bid for Congress. As expected, the Q&As at this year’s festival, which includes a retrospective program of American political films going back more than half a century, immediately turned towards discussion of this year’s presidential election. The interesting thing about Vigilante’s comment is that his own political race so long ago was against a figure whose success with voters somewhat mirrors that of Donald Trump’s. That opponent, Patrick Kennedy, is depicted in the 1996 documentary as being popular only because of name recognition. And the media is shown to have bolstered that idea by giving him and his family more attention than the other candidate because of their already established fame.

Political documentaries are an anytime fascination. During a presidential election year, even more so. But this year’s contest for the White House is one of the craziest in history, so it’s an even more appropriate time for a series like the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s R.J. Cutler-curated “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” We can look back through history for precursors and parallels to what we’re seeing today. And of course wonder the whole time: what are the amazing films being made right now on Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders or any other specific candidate, or perhaps on the whole assortment? How will the breadth of the 2016 elections for president be summed up in a feature film released a year or two from now?

Or any other interesting election story from this time? Joining Taking on the Kennedys on the first day of Full Frame’s four day event was a new political doc not lumped into Cutler’s program: Weiner. The film, which has already been championed since its Sundance premiere as the best nonfiction feature about a political campaign ever made, opened the fest with its look at Anthony Weiner’s failed comeback as he ran for mayor of New York City in 2013 following the sexting scandal that led to his resignation from Congress. The film has relevance to the current presidential race in that Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin (who comes out as the most interesting character in the new doc), is a major part of Clinton’s campaign. Also, like Taking on the Kennedys, there’s a lot to do with the over-mediation of famous and infamous candidates and how such coverage can tear down as well as build up.

With the variety of quality political campaign docs out there — and Full Frame is showing a number of them, including the 1964 short Campaign Manager that screened with Taking on the Kennedys — it’s difficult to say Weiner is the best of all time. But it is probably the best for this time. Among its assets is a subject who is very doc savvy. He makes a “fly on the wall” joke, for instance, that is best appreciated by nonfiction filmmakers and fans. And he’s fully aware of the importance of documentaries like the one he agreed to be the focus of. When asked why he did the film, as if he and we are supposed to think it’s just been more harmful to his reputation, Weiner says he wanted the full story and his full character shown, beyond the headlines. And Weiner does that for him. And for us. It doesn’t mock him or portray him in a bad light. Whether he’s to blame for doing it to himself is up to the viewer.

In politics, we never get new or unique stories, just new contexts for familiar narratives. Anyone seeing both Taking on the Kennedys and Weiner on the same day might realize this through the brief appearance and acknowledgement in the former of disgraced Rhode Island mayor Buddy Cianci, who at the time was serving that office on a second chance following his resignation from the position a few years earlier due to criminal charges. Like Weiner, who initially is seen in his own film to be ahead in the polls before being hit again with more scandal, Cianci was recognizably (in)famous enough that he could get another shot. But then, as you can see in the so-so political documentary Buddy (which is not part of the Full Frame program), he was again indicted on worse charges than before, leading to his second resignation and incarceration.

The festival’s retrospective reminds us how much we need documentaries to provide big picture accounts of these stories and to present them in the necessary contexts. This is more important now than ever because of how over-mediated the campaigns are. But going back to films like Campaign Manager and the 1960 classic Primary (which is also playing Full Frame), there are many essentials that collectively offer an even bigger picture of an extended period of American politics. It’s funny to hear in Campaign Manager the narrator tell us that this is how presidential campaigns are done in “the last half of the 20th century.” Then compare the film, which is about Barry Goldwater’s campaign manager John Grenier, to 1993’s The War Room (produced by Cutler and also playing Full Frame), which made a star out of Bill Clinton’s strategist, James Carville, and shows a whole new, very different kind of presidential campaign at the very end of the same century.

All three of those films (plus two more at the festival) involve documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker, who as a member of Drew Associates and later with wife and collaborator Chris Hegedus is one the great historical recordists of American politics. Because they are more experiential storytellers — even with Campaign Manager, which is presented with a past-tense narrative — we can’t call them outright historians, but they’re certainly a step higher in the historicizing process than news coverage. And they’ve done very well to represent different periods. Another of their docs, which unfortunately isn’t at Full Frame, is the 2006 film Al Franken: God Spoke, which doesn’t directly follow a politician nor a campaign manager but does still follow a political campaign, by way of a comedic media personality. Because politics then were so defined and influenced by people like Franken (who went on to become a politician) and Jon Stewart, that one is definitely the best for its time.

Representing that decade at the fest instead is Our Brand Is Crisis, which isn’t actually about American politics but does continue to show us the work of Carville. Cutler clearly tried to present multiple overarching narratives in his selection of the 13 documentaries in the program. In an introduction to the series, he acknowledges the inclusion of Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the African-American woman presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, being relevant to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and how America Is Hard to See, which looks at the 1968 presidential bid of Senator Eugene McCarthy, will have audiences seeing parallels to Bernie Sanders. And it’s not just ties to today. For all of the Pennebaker-associated films on the Kennedys, and for how much their portrayals supported our nation’s love of that family, it’s incredible to see him, three decades later, turn to the new John F. Kennedy-esque Bill Clinton, while the actual Kennedy family is picked up by another filmmaker and put in a fresh, fairly negative light.

Also in his introduction, featured in the Full Frame 2016 guide, Cutler recognizes AJ Schnack’s Caucus, the most recent film in the series, as representative of our current era of politics. And he’s right, and it’s one of the best for this time, but it’s a shame Cutler isn’t able to address Weiner since it’s outside the thematic program despite being inside the theme. It’s a blindsight when he says, “In the age of Donald Trump and the Cable News Media-Industrial Complex, one could wisely point out that subjects are too self-aware around anything with an on-off switch, political candidates and those who run their campaigns are too protected and insulated, everyone is media-trained and suspicious of someone with a camera, and no one would possibly allow a filmmaker the kind of insider access required to make a verite film along the lines of Primary or Crisis.”

But Weiner was certainly self-aware, and yet he and his team invited filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg in for a very candid documentary about his campaign. And Weiner is not the only exception. The recent Mitt Romney doc Mitt, which isn’t part of the program, had pretty decent access. So does Caucus to a degree, unofficially, through its blending in with the general media. That’s the thing about today’s over-mediated politics. While Cutler may have been right about docs just a few years ago, especially as so many were being made, now it seems candidates are so aware and so over-documented, that they may not be as guarded and insulated as they should be because they’re so used to the cameras. Weiner’s own scandal, which involved personal cameras, self-documentation, and social media, is evidence that it’s all so saturated inside and out that it’s taken for granted, as is privacy.

Trump, meanwhile, appears to be so outspoken and frank and off the cuff, so used to being in the spotlight that he can’t really escape it and doesn’t always have self-control while in it, that a Primary equivalent wouldn’t require too much official behind-the-scenes access anyway. It won’t be surprising if it turns out we get multiple “verite” or pseudo verite docs on the circus that is the Trump presidential campaign, as that’s how over-mediated things are. Then we’ll need another more singularly comprehensive doc shortly after to sum up those films the way a doc like Weiner is presently intended to give a complete picture of a story previously chronicled and scattered through news coverage. And that will be another of the best political docs for this time — or rather for its time, as the times are changing rapidly these days, and so are the contexts for these same old stories.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.