Chapter 36: "Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States," Betsy A. McLane. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
by Alexander Cybulsky
Betsy A. McLane (2016), author of “A New History of Documentary Film”, introduces her article on twenty-first century, American political documentary film as “a cumulative examination of specific trends in cultural norms, problems, political affairs, and experiences” (p. 447). However, rather than providing the reader with an examination of the genre, as promised, McLane (2016) offers more of a summary of specific filmmakers and their works, which she, admittedly through her own personal judgement, deems to have had “significant influences on American democratic processes” (p. 447). Although informative, the article unfortunately fails in analyzing the common themes and connections in political documentary films of this period. By the end of the chapter, the reader’s understanding of twenty-first century political documentary in the United States as a genre or subset of film is not any greater than before having read this work. The chapter’s introduction identifies some common attributes of twenty-first century documentaries such as “a cynicism and a sense of apocalypse” and the fact that solutions to the problems presented in these films “often seem unreachable and the optimism for creating a better world that characterized earlier documentaries has dimmed” (McLane, 2016, p. 448). However, the socio-economic, political, or historic factors that are responsible for such shifts in the nation’s “mood” are never addressed despite McLane (2016) stating in her introduction that “this chapter considers the ways in which technologies, economic factors and artistic choices reveal how … documentarians see their country…” (p. 448). Due to the lack of a clear intended audience, the absence of original idea and critical analysis, and the failure to identify and explain overarching themes, the chapter is not a successful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.
McLane begins the article in a logical manner by establishing criteria as to what constitutes a political documentary and which films she will focus on in her work. However, the body of the work does not follow suit with the same concise organization. McLane introduces significant filmmakers and proceeds to summarize film after film, by providing a brief rundown of film style, and focusing on net proceeds and marketing methods and challenges. In her summary, McLane touches upon concepts such as “documentary ethics” without providing any form of explanation on the topic, which suggests the article may be intended for a reader with an extensive knowledge on the subject of documentary film. However, one could also argue that such a reader would already be familiar with the films McLane discusses and would find the rushed and repetitive summaries uninteresting. Furthermore, a person well versed in the subject may be less inclined to read the article as it does not assume a position or present any new information on the topic of twenty-first century political documentaries. The lack of original idea in the work becomes especially clear through an examination of McLane’s sources. Much of the cited works are articles from newspapers and magazine such as the Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Variety, and The New York Times. Rather than presenting her readers with original thoughts and supporting them with facts from primary sources, McLane provides a summary backed up by opinion pieces. To a reader less familiar with political documentary, the chapter does not prove any more useful as it fails to explain or elaborate on important concepts and does not identify any thematic commonalities. The recurring summaries and lack of original idea and supporting factual evidence fail to captivate a novice reader. Without having seen a filmmaker’s work, statements such as “technically and artistically well crafted, these films look and sound good on the big screen” do not carry much weight (McLane, 2016, p.450). McLane’s oversight of writing without an intended audience in mind, makes the chapter less successful as neither a novice nor an expert would find the work particularly stimulating or thoroughly interesting.
In her topic summaries of various films, McLane (2016) makes statements such as “the … administration covered up the truth of what had happened” and “…deals with government secrets and the way that information is disseminated and distorted…” (p. 450 & 451). However, the author essentially fails to identify government secrets as an overarching theme in twenty-first century, political documentary in the United States. McLane (2016) also comments on individuals who were “…intent on breaking walls of secrecy around what they perceived as unjust …”, but falls through on introducing the reader to the concept of a whistleblower – an individual who reports insider knowledge of illegal or unethical activities occurring in an organization; an important term in the context of twenty-first century politics (p. 451). Here especially, the author misses the opportunity to elaborate on how twenty-first century technologies and socioeconomic factors influence the relationship between the United States government and its citizens. Modern technologies give the individual a voice, and stories, which could not have been told and shared in previous centuries can now be shared with thousands of people instantaneously. The digital age facilitates journalism to act as the fourth branch of government more than ever before, holding public officials accountable and informing citizens of prominent issues; a notion coined as the Fourth Estate by Edmund Burke, a British parliament member in the seventeen hundreds (Crichton, Christel, Shidham, Valderrama, & Karmel). It seems that instances of governmental institutions depriving the country’s citizens of their basic human right to the freedom of information are the stories twenty-first century political documentary filmmakers are keen on telling (Norris, 2008). As McLane has mentioned, the early twenty-first century has been considered the “Golden Age” of political and social-feature length documentaries, but the author never explains how modern journalism and technology are the causes to this phenomenon. Rather than providing summary, McLane’s knowledge on the topic would have been particularly useful here in explaining why documentary filmmakers have collectively undertook bringing awareness to these issues through their works.
Another aspect of contemporary American political documentaries that McLane (2016) points out but does not follow up on is the fact that a majority are made from a left-leaning perspective and that “…politically conservative documentaries have not tended to attract significant attention or feature in major film festivals” (p.454). Rather than providing an explanation for this important characteristic of twenty-firm century political documentary, McLane (2016) goes on to introduce “one conservative film that did get a large amount of attention…” (p. 454). Although relevant, the reader is not any more informed on the topic and left wondering what is the reasoning behind the facts presented. Jim Hubbard, a film and festival director, has speculated that there seems to be “a huge disconnect between conservatives and film” and “conservatives tend to shun the arts (Anderson, 2006). Filmmaker Michael Wilson holds that “film, to a large degree, has long been considered in the realm of liberal thought” and “the conservative movement has been about talk radio, maybe books” (Anderson, 2006). Whether these explanations are entirely accurate or not, the presentation of facts without any kind of support or explanation results in confusion and frustration for the reader who wishes to understand the topic put forward. It seems that McLane’s focus is on introducing works that she herself finds interesting or significant and is less concerned with informing the reader on the topic or presenting new knowledge.
In a sense, McLane (2016) sets up the reader for disappointment by promising one thing in the introduction and delivering another in the body of the work. The chapter does not read as a “cumulative examination of specific trends” (p. 447). In fact, “technology”, a topic promised to be “considered” in the introduction, does not get mentioned again until the chapter’s conclusion. McLane’s conclusion does not serve as a conclusion at all, but rather presents new information that seems out of place. McLane begins the subsection by providing a brief historic summary of the last 120 years of documentary making – information that would have likely proved to be more useful near the beginning. The conclusion then goes on to discuss the popularity of documentary in contrast to other types of film. However, the ineffectiveness of the conclusion is not surprising as no original or structured thoughts were presented for the author to conclude. The majority of McLane’s chapter was a summary of information without much critical connection. The reader becomes aware of specific filmmakers and important works. Unfortunately, this awareness does not translate into useful knowledge on the topic of contemporary American political documentary. McLane’s failure to consider who the intended audience for her work should be, to provide original thought and critical analysis, and to establish and analyze common themes and connections in the genre make her chapter an unsuccessful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.
Anderson, J. (2006, July 15). An Uprising on the Right in a World That Leans Left. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/16/movies/16ande.html
Crichton, D., Christel, B., Shidham, A., Valderrama, A., & Karmel, J. (n.d.). Journalism in The Digital Age. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from
McLane, B. A. (2016). Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 447-457). New York, New York: Routledge.
Norris, P. (2008). Driving democracy: do power-sharing institutions work? Cambridge: Cambridge university press.