Many will remember the dramatic rise and fall of Gary Hart when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination to run against George H. W. Bush. Seen as the front runner he ultimately resigned when evidence of an extra-marital affair surfaced. Many thought he would easily beat Bush should he win the nomination, but the fallout of the affair ruined his chances and Michael Dukakis was nominated only to lose by a huge margin to the Republican Bush. The fall from grace happened over three weeks and Reitman’s dramatization follows the events almost as a documentary. He focusses on Hart but also includes an ensemble cast representing political operatives working on the campaign, journalists, Hart’s family and the woman Donna Rice who became the focus of the story. The cast is excellent including Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife, J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager and many others in supporting roles. The film moves from intimate scenes between the leads to scenes of the chaos of media scrums, bar scenes and campaign offices. Jackman is superb in the role and portraying acting ability that was not always demanded of him as Wolverine, the role I know him best for. I did comment to friends that I wondered as the press closed in on him why he didn’t pop his adamantium claws and rip them all apart as Gary Hart clearly wishes he could. That aside, the film cannot help but contrast Hart’s fate with that of Donald Trump. Reitman was present for the Q and A and was asked whether he felt that now only someone with no morals could win political office. He responded that it wasn’t morals but that it was only someone with no shame. He asked the audience if we believed the political system was broken and he clearly believed it was. In the film Hart argues that the chasing after every aspect of a politician’s history and personal life has driven most people of quality from entering politics. It is simply not worth the risk or suffering to do it so that now only those with no shame are willing to try. It means we are only left with candidates with little or no values or principles. The other aspect of this film that is important is that the focus is not entirely on Hart and whether he is a tragic hero or not. Reitman makes a point of showing how the fallout of the affair affected Donna Rice, the woman with whom Hart had the affair. She is as much a victim of the media as Hart’s own demise as a candidate and the film does not shy away from that.
Reitman does not pass judgement one way or the other on Hart as a person or as a politician but very much leaves that up to the audience and lets us go away to talk and debate the story and the situation especially in the context of today’s political reality. An excellent film and highly recommended not only for political junkies but for anyone who enjoys thrilling drama.
My second day at TIFF ended with Michael Moore’s latest film which I think may well be his best yet (although Roger and Me remains a classic). The title if it is not obvious is a play on the title of his previous film Fahrenheit 9/11 and instead of referring to a terrorist attack it refers to the day after Trump was elected president in 2016. It is a long movie but you will not be bored. He starts with what got Trump into the presidential race mostly by accident and not to win but soon saw how he could actually become “King of the world”. The opening sequence ends with Trump’s inauguration and Moore’s narration:
“How the Fuck did we get here?”
Moore was one of the few to predict Trump could win the election in 2016 and he is also the one who called out the lie about weapons of mass destruction that got the US into unending war in the Middle East. For all of this he was dismissed as alarmist… but he was right. In this film he points out that Trump can easily win the mid-terms and win the presidency in 2020. We need to pay attention. But the film is not just about Donald Trump and his insane antics. Moore sees Trump as a symptom of a much deeper and far more dangerous trend in American politics and society. He returns to Flint, Michigan this time to address the lead poisoning crisis and the role of the Republican Governor in making the changes that resulted in poisoning thousands, mostly black and poor citizens in Flint. The decision was made to support the Governor’s business partners taking over the water supply as well as privatizing other municipal services. Moore goes on to show that the problem in Flint is still not resolved and was in fact allowed to continue even by President Obama who came to help but simply confirmed the Governor in his cover-up and lies. It was shocking, and many black voters were disappointed and abandoned the electoral system, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moore does not pull any punches and points to how from Reagan to Obama the trend to Trump was clear and that Americans should not be surprised. It has been a trend to compromise, relying on old time political machines that rely on capitalist right wing funders and less and less on ordinary citizens. Democrats are just Republicans with a different name. He points to the withdrawal of nearly half of eligible voters in the US to even become engaged in elections or political discourse. (see Monrovia, Indiana).
While Moore does point to some hopeful signs in the recent primaries leading to this year’s mid-term elections, he is not hopeful. The film ends with Moore drawing a clear connection between Trump’s rise to power and Adolf Hitler. This is a comparison that many have dismissed or called over the top, but it is a trend I completely agree with and Moore is very convincing. There is literally no difference between Trump or other populist politicians and Hitler’s own rise to power in the 1930’s. Moore’s call is for people to become engaged in political discourse and elections. He is very worried that his call to arms will be ignored or countered by the incumbents who have their hands on the levers of power. The film is major warning to us all, not only Americans, and sadly it is not a hopeful film. This is Moore’s best movie yet and very important for everyone to see. Oscar is in his future I hope.
To demonstrate that America is not the only democracy at threat I will return to one story in Moore’s film. The Flint water crisis started with a decision to declare a false emergency and fire the elected municipal governments in Michigan’s five largest cities and replace them with unelected administrators giving Governor Snyder the means to implement privatization of services. This led in turn to the decision to change Flint’s water supply and the resulting poisoning. My reaction was to look to our own Doug Ford and his interference in Toronto’s civic election. I worry that if Toronto elects the wrong mayor or too many left-wing councillors Ford will decide to do the same here. Given Ford’s recent behaviour this is not beyond thinking and is certainly within his power to do. As Moore notes let us not be distracted by Trump and impeachment but understand that Trump reflects a systematic threat to our democracies that must be addressed.
Monrovia, Indiana is a 2 ½ hour trip to small town rural middle America. You spend your time looking in on high school classes, local bars and eateries, the veterinarian, tattoo shop, hair dresser, local town council meetings and farm work listening to the people and what is top of mind for them on any given day or moment. All these scenes are interspersed with absolutely beautiful images of the countryside, the endless horizon and the clouds in the sky. There is absolutely no political talk at all despite this film being shot in 2016-17. I am not sure how many readers are fans of Frederick Wiseman documentaries. They can be challenging to watch but worth the effort as he has documented aspects of our culture and society in great detail while letting them speak for themselves. The films are long and there is no narration but only the voices and images of the people and things he is observing. Of course, how he edits and structures the films also sends a message. We were lucky to have him present for a Q and A after this showing and it added a lot to understanding the film and his glimpse into the daily lives of people living in Monrovia. While Indiana voted Trump and Monrovia is as white a community as one could find anywhere, I went expecting to hear the voices of outrage and to understand who people could vote the way they did. Instead I got a look into a community completely preoccupied with their daily lives, people discussing their health or lack thereof, local sports, getting their hair done, very local community issues like where the fire hydrants are and are they working, and… nothing more. The major political statement if there was one to be found was that no one even thinks about national politics or really about very much beyond the town borders. One of the longer and more revealing scenes was a tour of the local high school looking at pictures of football and basketball teams from decades past and graduating classes from the 1920’s and 30’s. We then listen in to a teacher giving a lecture to a class about the proud tradition of sports in the community including former Monrovians who made it to the NBA, state championships etc. During the Q and A Wiseman was asked to tell us what subject the class portrayed in the segment were studying. He responded, “Well that was a history class. Couldn’t you tell?” Enough said.
Wiseman spent 10 weeks in the town filming and he told us politics never came up. And that sums up Monrovia and maybe sadly much of US society in a nutshell. I would guess most of the people we saw know nothing about what is going on Washington and the world and could care less. Given the state of US politics today one can see that there is no way to explain what is happening without including the lives and actions of the people in towns like Monrovia all over the US. It was an revealing introduction to middle America which was then to be followed by going off to see Michael Moore’s latest film Fahrenheit 11/9 and the different message he had for his audience. My guess however is that Michael Moore documentaries do not play in Monrovia.