Bad guys aren’t all fictional. 2019 offers a more plentiful than usual supply of real-life villains among the year’s selection of films.
Three documentaries, in particular, currently making the rounds of film festivals, have gained attention for their portraits of horrifying but all too real men, disgracefully tarnishing the respective offices of film producer, lawyer, and political activist.
Below, we look through a small selection of documentaries for essential viewing.
Director: Ursula Macfarlane
The now well-known story of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and his history of coercion, harassment, and assault of actresses within his circle, is outlined in this biographical documentary, along with the eventual complaints which led to the ‘Me Too’ movement and his ultimate public disgrace. The coverage is personal and in-depth, with commentary from Weinstein’s relatives, colleagues, and former employees, as well as a few of the actresses who had worked with him, and later provided evidence against him. Documentarian Ursula Macfarlane does not take the opportunity to vilify Weinstein as brutally as she might; if anything, the film makes an effort at objectivity and allows Weinstein’s talents and positive traits to be discussed in full along with his misdeeds. However, it also avoids glossing over his mistreatment of countless women, and examines the power structure and the presumptions that allowed it to go unchecked for years. The title, ‘Untouchable,’ seems to refer to Weinstein himself, whose behaviour went not only unaddressed but successfully hidden through a lengthy career, his wealth, power, and influence grating him virtual carte blanche.
A screening at the Windsor International Film Festival in Windsor, Ontario was followed up by a Q&A with two people featured in the documentary: actor Erika Rosenbaum, who was one of Weinstein’s many accusers, and former Weinstein employee Hope D’Amore, who added her own past observations when complaints against Weinstein began to emerge. D’Amore explained she felt she “had an obligation to speak out” when news emerged that women were accusing Weinstein of assault or harassment, “especially considering the risks many actresses were taking,” risks that included being blacklisted out of professional opportunities. D’Amore allowed that the harassment she’d suspected was almost certainly continuing after she left the Weinstein Company, but had also believed that people must have been aware and forewarned. After the story came out, D’Amore says, “I felt it was my fault,” and regretfully asked herself “What did you think was going to happen?” She later discovered how common that reaction was: “The tendency is for women to blame themselves.”
Erika Rosenbaum remarked that exposure of harassment and abuse is vital, because Hollywood “is a power down industry led by men” a fact which “tends to allow for this kind of thing.” She also stressed that the problem is not limited to Hollywood. Rosenbaum went on, “This isn’t just about the secrecy of Hollywood or the casting couch; this is a much bigger story. The power aspect is the root problem.” She expressed concern that power is what makes reporting difficult and expressed excitement that the matter is now being so openly discussed. Rosenbaum, noting that “he [Weinstein] isn’t the first one,” referenced national leaders with a similar history of complaints. “There are people who protect these men, very powerful people.”
Hope D’Amore, asked by the audience if much has changed since the Me Too movement, said she felt women were more willing to speak up, but that the media was still somewhat reluctant to deal with the question. She pointed to television network NBC, which declined to publish the Weinstein allegations. Rosenbaum replied that the “structure” hasn’t changed enough; that payoffs and NDAs are still the common response of companies or studios to accusations of assault, but concluded, “I’m hopeful; I think we’re on our way.” This sentiment seemed to be expressed by the film as well.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Journalist and documentary director Matt Tynauer seems to have modelled this biography after the standard true crime story, portraying the actions and sinister nature of his subject almost as if outlining a murder plot. The story of the long, strange career of lawyer Roy Cohn, the second documentary on Cohn released this year, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It details the rise of a lawyer, former prosecutor, and notorious ‘fixer’ who appears to be a simple attorney and behind the scenes advisor to the wealthy and powerful, but who turns out to have been incredibly influential, even, the film argues, responsible for much of the current direction of American politics. The title refers to an alleged comment by President Donald Trump; when raging about his staff’s failure to protect him, reportedly exclaimed: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Roy Cohn, he was implying, would have successfully shielded him from the consequences of his actions; it was his speciality.
Through extensive archival footage, and witness commentary by relatives, journalists, political strategists, fellow lawyers, and even the former owner of nightclub Studio 54, the film begins with a brief overview of his family background, education, and the recurring issue of his carefully concealed homosexuality. It then goes on to recount Cohn’s work with US Senator Joseph McCarthy, his assistance with the infamous anti-Communist “witch trials,” and his part in the notorious execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. As the film reveals, Cohn’s legal skill and persuasiveness was combined with a near-perfect amorality, and a willingness to lie, cheat, threaten, and manipulate that endeared him to a select range of clients. He advised Ronald Reagan and was credited by Nancy Reagan with ensuring Reagan’s election as president. It was through Cohn’s work for the New York City mafia that he came into contact with Donald Trump, whose father, according to the film, had close ties with organised crime. Impressed by Cohn’s skill at helping criminals evade the law, Trump took Cohn on as personal lawyer, avoiding the consequences of maintaining racially segregated apartment buildings through Cohn’s machinations. From that time, Trump became Cohn’s protégé, learning a great deal about the art of deflection, counter-attack, and selective deceit from his mentor. Trump’s approach to public image and the media may be described as a clumsy imitation of Cohn’s. It could even be argued, and the film does suggest, that we have Roy Cohn to thank for the Trump presidency.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is thorough, entertaining, and very good at spelling out the political and historic significance of Cohn at each stage of his career. If the film has an obvious flaw, it is that it becomes needlessly spiteful where Cohn’s personal life is concerned, dwelling on the homeliness of Cohn’s mother, and seeming to revel far too much in Cohn’s desperate efforts to hide his sexual orientation, and even in his eventual death from AIDS. It is otherwise an intriguing character study, and a thorough and informative look at an influential behind-the-scenes force.
Director: Alison Klayman
Widely acclaimed director Alison Klayman managed to gain an astonishing level of access for this portrait of former banker and media executive, Donald Trump campaign strategist, and White House advisor, Steve Bannon. While personal background is provided, most of the film is an intimate study of Bannon’s current work, attempting to promote and unify far-right, nationalist parties and political movements in the US and Europe. Klayman’s camera seems to have been allowed everywhere, following Bannon’s movements through the second half of 2018. Bannon is seen in public venues, speaking in support of President Trump; but the camera also follows him into private meetings with the various political leaders he hopes to unify into a single populist party, such as the People’s Party and Le Pen’s National Rally – offering background with a montage of the spread of populism in Europe. Bannon is surprisingly open about his opinions, describing the atmosphere in the Trump White House as full of “bad karma,” declaring that nationalism is simple common sense. He describes Donald Trump as “a transformational president” and himself as “on a mission” to convert people to his own brand of populism.
There is virtually no editorialising from the filmmaker; the camera simply observes as Bannon himself reveals all. Clips from his interviews familiarise the audience with his particular style of deflection and persuasion, his façade of candidness combined with a willingness to be provocative regardless of audience, following the philosophy that there is no bad media coverage. As the film progresses, Bannon’s ease with the concept of propaganda and willingness to manipulate the press emerge effortlessly; and the contradictions between Bannon’s public statements and his private sentiments gradually become apparent, as when his earnest condemnation of the blatantly racist faction in his movement contrasts with his casual comment in private, that “hate is useful for moving things forward.” In private discussions, Bannon seems to ignore the camera and freely acknowledge that his pro-Trump video is simple-minded propaganda, or dismiss some of his own supposed followers as merely useful in the interim. Most disturbing are his sly, half-joking shout-outs to his critics, as when he critiques one of his own political films by asking himself, “What would Leni do with it?” – referring to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl; or makes impish pro-fascist remarks for the camera’s benefit; or describes his plans for The Movement, as he calls his efforts to spread nationalism, with almost pretentious frankness, as though daring listeners to object, or to try and stop him. Director Klayman clearly knows when to stand back and let her subject reveal himself, with unnerving results.
Also of interest…
Get Me Roger Stone
Directors: Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, Morgan Pehme
Recently released on Netflix, this 2017 documentary by the three-man directing team of Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme, tells the story of Roger Stone, self-described ‘agent provocateur,’ considered one of the most unprincipled political strategists in Washington. He advised disgraced former president Richard Nixon (whose face is tattooed on Stone’s back), and is credited with being the first to advise Donald Trump to enter politics. He is reportedly responsible for Trump’s campaign strategy, and was a Trump advisor until his arrest on multiple charges earlier this year. Proudly corrupt, flamboyantly dishonest, and almost entertainingly unlikable, as well as consistently harmful to American democracy, he fits easily into the Hideous Men category and is an obvious choice for a film biography.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Director: Alexis Bloom
A poor man’s Harvey Weinstein, Ailes was a media advisor to Richard Nixon before being chosen by Rupert Murdoch to run Fox News, which he proudly acknowledged as biased and a promotional tool for his preferred political party. It was not manipulating the news that brought him down, however, but the systematic abuse and harassment of his female employees, and the malicious revenge he took on those who refused him. Filmmaker Alexis Bloom provides an interesting look at Ailes’ rise and fall.
Director: Errol Morris
Another attempt to fathom the thinking of Steve Bannon, this 2018 documentary by award-winning director Errol Morris (A Brief History of Time, The Fog of War) takes a different approach. The director interviews Bannon, allowing him to speak for and defend himself, making every effort to understand his perspective and find common ground. In the process, Bannon’s effect on US politics is explored in depth. Morris must be given credit for taking a difficult approach to a challenging subject.