Are progressive documentary filmmakers finished with giving Barack Obama a free pass?
Last Monday, as much of the country celebrated Obama’s second inauguration, the Sundance Film Festival was presenting a very different view of the commander-in-chief. Two films, Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars and Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks both take hard, unforgiving looks at the president and his policies.
It’s not hard to find Obama-bashing nonfiction these days—see last year’s rightwing hit 2016: Obama’s America, for instance—but it was at least mildly surprising to see two such films at Sundance, generally a bastion of liberalism, founded by famous lefty Robert Redford. Sundance hosted the premiere of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. This year, as the festival was getting under way, the Huffington Post confirmed the festival’s bleeding-heart reputation with an article titled, “Liberal Documentaries Light Up Sundance.”
Of course, the two films are, in fact, made by liberals. Jeremy Scahill is a contributor to The Nation, Rowley made the the WTO protest doc This Is What Democracy Looks Like, and Alex Gibney won an Oscar for his U.S. torture expose Taxi to the Dark Side. What they’ve done, and what filmmakers have seemed reluctant to do over the past four years, is attack Obama from the left.
Dirty Wars, in particular, comes down hard on the current administration and its expanded use of drone attacks to wage war overseas. In one scene, Scahill speaks, in hushed somber narration, about what goes on “in the shadows”—and the film cuts to an ominous low-angle black-and-white portrait of President Obama, making him out to be some kind of arch-villain. Indeed, much of the film portrays Obama’s international security efforts as nothing less than barbaric, leading to the murders of innocent women and children in Afghanistan and Yemen, the arming of immoral Somali warlords and the perpetuation of global terror, rather than its cessation.
By comparison, Gibney’s jibes against Obama are far less barbed. But even though We Steal Secrets focuses, as its title suggests, on Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, the film includes a few stinging attacks against the country’s executive branch. Most notably, Gibney includes a famous clip from a White House news conference in which ABC News’ Jake Tapper presses Obama about the treatment of alleged Wikileaks collaborator Bradley Manning. The film makes powerfully evident that Manning was, in fact, unfairly abused, stripped, and held in solitary confinement, which makes Obama’s response seem all the more callous and out-of-touch. “I’ve actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of [Manning’s] confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards,” the president says. “They assured me that they are.”
The clip is exactly the kind of gotcha moment documentaries have frequently employed when examining the country’s 43rd president, George W. Bush, often portrayed like a deer caught in the headlights of the media. During the Bush years, a whole cottage industry developed around documentaries trashing the president and his cabinet: Why We Fight, No End in Sight, Bush’s Brain, The World According to Bush, Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War, Death of a President, and, of course, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
By way of contrast, of the 15 films recently short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary—a prize that often favors newsy films—only one, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, concerns U.S. policy. And even in that film, about the failed war on drugs, the Obama Administration comes out looking pretty good (thanks largely to its passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine).
Back in 2009, Michael Moore said it was still “too early” to judge the president. “I’m willing to give the man a bit of a chance,” he explained at the premiere of Capitalism: A Love Story. “But a year from now,” he added, “the next movie may be about him.” More than three years later, Moore still hasn’t made a movie about Obama, and some of his fans seem to be imploring him to do so. On Twitter, someone recently asked him, “Will you be doing a movie on drone use? Or that Obama has declared the execution of US citizens perfectly legit?” Even if Moore himself doesn’t, it looks like other left-leaning filmmakers are taking up the charge.