Greg Palast and David Ambrose are the co-directors of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a documentary about election fraud in the United States. But although Palast is a genuine investigative reporter of some note—namely because of his work uncovering Florida’s shady tactics in the 2000 presidential race—it wouldn’t be surprising if Ambrose was actually a nom de cinema for Michael Bay.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy may not have literal explosions and hyperactive editing, but its dizzying volume of numbers, names, facts, and “facts” are just as headache-inducing and bewildering as any Transformers flick. Posturing as a real-life Dick Tracy in a suit, trench coat, and fedora, Palast serves as your onscreen guide and in-their-faces interviewer, like a more melodramatic Michael Moore. He brags about the past scandals he’s uncovered and makes clear that this doc is about the theft of the 2016 election, telling viewers, “It’s a crime still in progress.”
(Disclaimer: Anyone looking for direct Trump trashing won’t find it here. With the exception of a clip of his quote that elections are rigged, this film may be the only current media that keeps The Donald out of the picture.)
The most glaring issue with The Best Democracy is the directors’ decision to present the film as a grotesque amalgam of film noir, comic strip, and stylus-shaky animation, as if they wouldn’t be able to hold viewers’ interest otherwise. Palast and his assistant, “chief investigatrix” Leni Badpenny, overact like badasses from a ‘50s thriller, casually throwing around words such as “jive.” Sometimes Palast is situated in an inky Sin City-like background as he’s making calls; other times he’s shown with his head in his hands with drawings around him, as if he just can’t believe the ghastly information he’s learned. Accompanying these shenanigans is a tense, stringed score worthy of Hitchcock.
These visuals clash with a relentless parade of theories, connections, and stats. If you want the gist of the film’s message—remember, it’s about election fraud and voter disenfranchisement—the Koch brothers and their GOP cronies are to blame, having bought off politicians such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who created the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. The program is a list of 7 million voters authorities suspect of voting multiple times in several states. But there’s one problem: It doesn’t bother to match people’s middle names, and according to Palast, neither birth dates nor Social Security numbers are included on the list. What does that mean for citizens such as Willie Nelson and Rosario Dawson? Both are on the list as suspected felons.
There’s much, much more behind allegedly rigged elections than that. The film goes off on tangents, spending time discussing the oil industry, people who made money off of subprime mortgages, and politicians such as Karl Rove and Mitt Romney. There’s a glancing reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and explanations of methods such as voter “caging” and “spoilage.” You’ll wonder where it’s all going. And even once it gets there, you may not be clear on how the puzzle pieces fit.
The directors’ overwhelming approach to the subject is shameful—it’s a tongue-in-cheek treatment of a serious matter. What Palast finds is that many of the voters whose rights have been taken away are minorities, often using methods that are directly in conflict with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Some of what Palast uncovers may be exaggerated, but plenty of it sounds very real. He calls the fraud “lynching by laptop.” It’s just another indefensibly cutesy way of categorizing a huge civil rights issue that has no business being discussed alongside comic-book strips and frivolous scribbles.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.