I’m going to take a break from Netflix for this edition, because honestly, there’s still so much to go – both in narrative films and documentaries – that I could do a column a day and still not be finished with Netflix by the end of next week. While I’m not the biggest fan of streaming services in general (I personally only have Netflix, Amazon, and HBOMax, the latter because I have HBO on my satellite service), there are other outlets available, and they too have taken advantage of the pandemic to deliver the content we’ve sorely been missing with the theatres still shuttered. Thankfully, many of you out there are allowed to go back to the movies, but here in California – where we just crossed 800,000 cases – we’re still barred for the foreseeable future. So to deal with that harsh reality, today’s mini reviews will deal with documentaries from non-Netflix sources.
I’ve got three interesting entries today, all of which deal with the government in some way. One focuses on mock government, another about a situation where the authorities had to get involved with a dangerous situation, and the final about a paragon of our political discourse. All of them have something to offer, and are definitely worth your attention in some way.
Before we get started, though, a small item of housekeeping. You may have noticed that the URL for this blog has changed. I have officially bought the domain of actuallypaid.com. Yes, I actually paid for actuallypaid. If nothing else, that means that you should be able to read the site without WordPress ads anymore. This is still a WordPress site, just the name’s been taken off the web address and one of the perks is less advertising. If you encounter issues with the site, please let me know. Just because I’ve been running this blog for 2.5 years does NOT mean I’ve figured everything out yet, so bugs are always a possibility. And hell, even if there are no issues, reach out and join the conversation.
Okay, on with the docs!
Boys State – Apple TV+
Boys State (and its female equivalent, Girls State) is a civics program run by the veterans’ organization, The American Legion, where for one week, boys in the summer between their junior and senior years of high school are gathered from all across each individual state for exercises in model government. The goal is to teach the boys an appreciation for civics through active participation, as every boy is given some job or responsibility, everything from marching band to media to security to political office at the “local” to “state” level.
I myself was a Boys Stater back in 1999 in New York. The most common occurrence was people thinking that I and my five classmates were in the wrong place because we were from the small town of Newark, which is near Rochester, and many presumed we were actually from New Jersey. The 1,200 of us throughout the Empire State were split into two parties – Federalist and Nationalist – based on a number we were assigned at random. I was #1072, a Federalist, from the city of Giordano in the county of Kogutek (cities and counties for us were named after previous state commanders of the Legion). Our Boys State was held at the campus of SUNY Morrisville, about two hours from my town. During the week, I attended city, county, and state caucuses for my party and for the state at large. I played on my city’s softball team. We went swimming during our free time. We were given drill instruction by Marine Corps sergeants, who used the event as a recruitment tool. I nearly passed out multiple times, but it was the first time I ever successfully ran a mile nonstop. Our instructor, Sgt. Cabrera, saw us reenacting the “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” scene from Top Gun, and had us sing it to his wife over the phone while doing pushups. There were two cute twin girls who helped run the kitchen, and every single one of us fell in love with them because we were hormonal teenagers. I was eventually elected Clerk of the Federalist Party at the state level, because I could do the Truffle Shuffle from Goonies. I roomed with two other guys, one from each party, and we trash-talked each other playfully. Reveille was at 7:00am, but I was up at 5:30 each morning in order to get a hot shower.
Suffice to say, it was one of the best, most memorable moments of my life, and I still remember so much of it, even though it was more than half my life ago. We were told that being a Boys Stater meant you were part of a brotherhood for all time, and it turned out to be true enough. I wore my Boys State shirt on a road trip two years later, and grown men would come up to me to share their stories at rest stops.
So just on subject matter alone, I was predisposed to like Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary, Boys State, about the 2018 session in Texas, which won the top documentary prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as a special jury prize at South By Southwest. What I was not prepared for, however, was just how fascinating it would be to see a youth reflection of our modern politics, and how much technology has truly transformed the way our society engages in the political process.
Texas is a particularly interesting center for this study, because it is a unique political entity. There’s a fairly even split between urban and rural, allowing for an ostensible ideological balance. The state is the second largest by area, which means an extreme diversity of cultures and ideas depending on where one lives. Unlike other states, there’s an almost jingoistic identity with being a Texan, to the point that in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance to America, students also have a Pledge of Allegiance to Texas. No better is this identity exemplified by the Boys State of 2017, where the assembly actually voted for Texas to secede from the Union and become an independent nation (compare that with the landmark legislation from MY Boys State… a resolution to combine with Girls State so we can date and have a gigantic prom at the end; it was immediately kiboshed by the Legion because it defeats the purpose of the program and the logistics would have been insane). There’s no better microcosm for political civility and turmoil than the Lone Star State.
The film focuses on five boys in particular. Ben has no legs and a deformed arm, but he refuses to be treated differently. In fact, he’s a staunch conservative who believes that anything can be achieved through enough determination and hard work, and that those who fail have no excuse. Rene is an idealistic liberal who relies on charisma to lead. Robert aspires to go to West Point, and believes there is no higher honor than serving his country, in any capacity. Eddy is a smart, logical thinker, who the others compare to Ben Shapiro for some reason (because when I think “smart” and “logic”… yeah, no). Finally, Steven is the first person from his immigrant family who is on a path to not only finish high school, but go to college.
What makes this documentary so compelling is in the way these five young men – all of whom run for either party chairman or governor – present their cases. Ben looks for opportunities to exploit weakness. Rene is a stickler for rules with an allowance for some fun. Robert tries to pander to the crowd, espousing beliefs that are contrary to his own in order to gain votes because he can read a room. Eddy seeks consensus, but knows how to hammer a point home. Steven is somewhat soft spoken, but he takes a “man of the people” approach, engaging with and asking everyone he meets what they believe and what they want in a representative, before he even asks for a petition signature or a vote.
It’s amazing how juvenile these boys can be, but also how passionate they become to win for their side. One second they can be shooting the shit or playing some basketball, the next they’re creating Instagram accounts to slander the other side, which quickly devolves with predictable results. An instance where Rene sticks to the rules of a Q&A session gets spun into party bias. Steven’s previous presence at a March For Our Lives rally becomes a talking point and an attack. Imagine a world where wanting your fellow teens to NOT DIE in a hail of gunfire can be painted as a negative. That’s how quickly and ruthlessly these kids are able to take advantage of the situation, and how easily social media allows for the tiniest thing to blow up.
But most important of all, the film shows how complex the teenage mind can be, and how the program can be a strong life lesson for all involved. We all know life isn’t fair, especially when it comes to our government and laws, but it’s even more crucial to understand how fast things can turn, when to take the high road, and that even in defeat, the fight will always continue. It’s that perseverance to stand by your ideals and to not be defined by one result – be it positive or negative – that is shown throughout the film. I fear for our country in a lot of respects, but these kids, even the ones I would vehemently disagree with, give me at least some hope for the future.
Class Action Park – HBOMax
A long time ago, there was a little amusement park called Action Park in Vernon Township, New Jersey. For those that never went, it was the stuff of legends. For those that did, it could just as easily be the stuff of nightmares. A grand experiment in corporate malfeasance and the nadir of deregulation, the park was basically a death trap, with numerous injuries and actual, physical deaths for patrons and employees alike. But in spite of its infamy, or maybe even because of it, there’s an almost mythic nostalgia to one of the most dangerous places in the country.
Narrated by John Hodgman, this documentary from science journalist Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott chronicles the park’s creation by Eugene Mulvihill, a penny stock con artist who was kicked off of Wall Street for selling bogus securities. Think of him as a low rent version of Jordan Belfort. In fact, the film even cuts to clips of The Wolf of Wall Street to illustrate the similarities. Due to his connections, he always had money coming in, and thanks to his bombastic style, he made Action Park as an adult playground (with kids as well) where the rules didn’t matter, if they even existed, and the only limit to a new ride was his imagination (and occasionally physics).
The park flourished because it was a place where local kids from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware could all go fairly cheaply. The idea was to have the park in the summer and a ski resort in the winter, turning Vernon into a year-round Orlando for those who couldn’t afford Orlando. But corners were cut everywhere, and the rides were patently unsafe, including an alpine sled ride where riders constantly flipped their vehicles off the track, a wave pool that was way too rocky, go karts that were routinely driven by drunken guests (it was right next to the beer hall, after all) with no track boundaries, and of course, the infamous Cannonball Loop, a waterslide with a vertical loop where riders would routinely get stuck.
Eventually the government had to intervene and shut the park down, but only after 20 years of looking the other way as countless lawsuits were fought tooth and nail – including several wrongful death suits – and Mulvihill got off scot free every time. In the age of deregulation and Reaganomics, it was almost seen as a good thing that Mulvihill created fake insurance companies to remain legally open, or that he became such a nuisance to the Vernon local government that they just gave up and sold him the land for the park outright just to not have to bother with him anymore. It’s a cycle we’re repeating right now. No matter how sleazy you are, if you’re persistent with the sleaziness, you’ll eventually get away with it.
The film is supplemented by interviews with former “park guests,” comic actors Chris Gethard and Alison Becker (the latter of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with before; I squeed when I saw her). They offer fun commentary because they’re genuinely funny people, and being Jersey natives, they exemplify the sort of Jersey mentality that Action Park and its associated injuries were something of a rite of passage for the locals. At times it borders on becoming excessive, mostly because it lets the film drift toward making light of the horrible goings on of the park, rather than condemning it. On the whole, it’s fine, but there were a few moments where we went from a truly inspired bit of animation demonstrating in comically exaggerated terms how dangerous something was, only to cut to the mother of someone who died. It affects the tone ever so slightly.
Still, this was compelling, funny, and yes, even a bit nostalgic. I can’t remember if I ever went to Action Park myself as a kid growing up in Delaware (I want to say yes, because there are a lot of areas shown in the film that look too familiar to just be stock footage), but I definitely knew of the place, and its reputation. So learning the full story, especially one told by truly funny people who can give a unique and twisted perspective, was a nice change of pace from traditional documentaries.
John Lewis: Good Trouble – CNN & Amazon
The United States lost one of its true heroes recently. How sad is it that the previous sentence doesn’t narrow things down? Over the last year plus we’ve felt our democracy shudder with the deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elijah Cummings, and the subject of this documentary, John Lewis. Lewis served in Congress for over 30 years, representing Atlanta, until his death in July. He was a stalwart crusader for civil rights and equal protection, and a figure worthy of lionization even before he went to Washington.
The documentary, so named because of Lewis’ motto of “getting into good trouble, necessary trouble” for the cause of justice, is fairly straightforward. His life is chronicled, from his upbringing on a rural Alabama farm (there’s an amusing anecdote about preaching to chickens), to his joining with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march from Selma to Montgomery as well as the march on Washington, his personal life, and his work as a public servant. Interspersed in the story are myriad interviews with staffers, family, and other politicians who he has inspired, particularly the freshmen Congresswomen known as “The Squad”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.
There were two things that struck me the most with the film, which is what makes it stand apart from a simple biography. The first is how it shows that the struggle for equality is still going on. Lewis got his head bludgeoned crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge (there are now several campaigns to rename the bridge in Lewis’ honor) for the right to vote, and the Voting Rights Act, reauthorized by Democrat and Republican presidents alike, was the crowning achievement of that effort. Seven years ago, the Supreme Court gutted it, and Lewis spent the rest of his life fighting to restore it, including passing a new version as the first act of the current Congress in 2019, only for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to outright refuse to take up the bill in the other chamber. We also see wholesale attacks on voting rights going on right now, to the point that minorities are almost as disenfranchised in several respects than they were during the Jim Crow era. The film goes out of its way to show Lewis doing good work, even against impossible opposition, because that’s just how far our discourse has fallen.
The other superlative aspect is in showing Lewis as a jovial, friendly representative of the people. Far too often Democrats get portrayed as out of touch coastal elites, and in some cases, it’s very true. But most aren’t like that, and Lewis certainly wasn’t. Half the film shows him taking asides in public, be it on the Capitol steps, a church, an airport, whatever, to just greet people and talk to them. You can’t properly represent people if you don’t know who they are or what their lives are like. Because Lewis has literally and figuratively walked in their shoes, he knew their struggle, and did his best to put a smile on people’s faces, even if it made his daily schedule extremely tedious, to paraphrase one of his staffers.
Sometimes detachment is necessary in politics, but far too often it can get out of hand, particularly when that detachment leads to self-serving interests and acts of pure evil. This film makes sure we know John Lewis the man as well as the icon, and shows the importance of attachment to the people, a gift we lost when Lewis left us two months ago, and one we’re dying for now.
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Next time, I’ll dive back into the Netflix queue. Now that summer’s over, I’ll go through the films that pitter-pattered along the way during the dog days as some theatres started to reopen. Join me then!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which one was your favorite? Were you a Boys/Girls Stater, and if so, what did you do with the experience? Let me know!