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Could somebody please explain why the best-known rabble-rousers on the left are all such unkempt shlumps? The right gets leggy blondes such as Ann Coulter and smooth talkers such as Dinesh D’Souza to spin its theories into telegenic form; the opposition gets the dour and scolding Noam Chomsky, perpetually looking as if he had just waked up from a fitful night’s sleep, and Michael Moore in a beer-stained T-shirt.

At least Moore has some rhetorical charisma. Steve Earle, star of the woefully unfocused documentary Just an American Boy, has the Michigan muckraker’s build and attention to sartorial detail but none of his wit or talent for exposing hypocrisy. At various times homeless, heroin-addicted, and incarcerated, the bearded, cheesesteak-loving singer-songwriter now crisscrosses the country on a tour bus, thinking of himself as an heir to Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Abbie Hoffman. (Though he is talented, he’s not nearly that talented.)

Because his music is often crammed by marketers into the C&W category, Earle sometimes finds himself performing to pickup-driving crowds in the red states, but that doesn’t stop him from prefacing his songs with meandering introductions about leftist politics. In the shots director Amos Poe gives us, Earle’s audiences sometimes cheer or laugh along with these speeches; sometimes they simply look confused and bored.

Just an American Boy would seem timely, given the recent controversy surrounding Earle’s decision to write a song from the perspective of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. The lyrics of that song, “John Walker’s Blues,” were seized upon by Fox News, the New York Post, and other less-than-progressive media outlets as a defense of Taliban-style fundamentalism. (The headline in the Post: “Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat.”) A firestorm ensued, landing Earle on one cable channel after another. That story alone would seem to be enough to sustain a documentary twice as long as this one. So would an investigation of what it means in tense times to create a work of art with a politically unpalatable protagonist, whether song or poem or film.

But neither Poe nor his subject seems much for complication. Earle does little more than make repeated claims that he didn’t record the song as a publicity stunt—which naturally begin to ring hollow after a while. You would have to be more naive than the road-hardened Earle to write a song saying that Lindh and his fellow freelance soldiers in Afghanistan had hearts that “were pure and strong” and then claim to be surprised when it pushes your name recognition to the highest point of your career. Or to be surprised, for that matter, to hear that it has Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh up in arms.

Conversations about music that makes people angry are always worth having, but Poe’s treatment of the controversy is glancing. Poe follows Earle on visits to radio studios to defend “John Walker’s Blues,” collecting brief and garbled explanations as he goes. We never even get a clear reading of the song’s lyrics—although it’s surprising that it never occurred to Poe to subtitle the film’s musical sequences. Earle tends to mumble, especially in song, and it would help to know exactly what all the fuss is about. Instead, Poe spends his time trying out split screens and other visual tricks that make his concert footage look nearly bootlegger-amateurish.

Poe, director or co-director of eight previous films, including the 1976 punk documentary The Blank Generation, seems fully smitten with Earle. He captures the rituals surrounding even the musician’s endless cigarette smoking with a fawning eye, and he records his subject’s rambling rhetoric without judgment. Even when Earle is shown at less than his best—nastily chewing out a guy, for example, for the way he drives a car in which the singer is riding—it’s clear that Poe sympathizes with his subject to the bitter end. If only that were enough to make this particular leftist shlump look good.

Seventy-three-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman could teach Poe a thing or two about the form: His résumé includes some of the most beloved docs of all time, legendary institutional studies such as High School (1969), Hospital (1970), and Meat (1976). His latest effort, however, is something else: an adaptation of a French theatrical production based on a partly autobiographical novel written by a Russian, Vasily Grossman.

The Last Letter couldn’t be sparer. It’s filmed in black and white and features a single character, a Russian Jew living in a part of the Soviet Union that has been invaded and occupied by Nazi forces. The woman, a doctor named Anna Semionovna, is played by French actress Catherine Samie, reprising a role she performed in a recent stage production.

The narrative is formed around a letter Anna is writing to her son, who is safe outside Nazi territory. Trapped inside a Jewish ghetto, she senses that this will be the last communication she sends before she’s killed by the Germans. She turns it into an angry denunciation of Nazi atrocities and a fierce assertion of her Jewishness and her love for her son. “I always felt Russian,” she says. “Now I am full of maternal tenderness for the Jewish people.”

Wearing a black sweater with a yellow Star of David pinned on the front, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, the handsome Samie stalks a broad stage, shifting from tears to seething rage and often using her thin, bony arms for emphasis, thrusting them up in the air or clenching her hand into a tight fist. Wiseman throws harsh spotlights on her, producing a shifting array of shadows at the rear of the set that he manipulates like puppets.

The Last Letter is sometimes hard to parse, especially in the beginning. It demands some patience, and the subtitles occasionally make it difficult to pay close attention to both Wiseman’s graceful shadow play and Samie’s remarkable range of facial expressions. At other times the film shades into preciousness, but for the most part Wiseman’s rigorous approach is successful, keeping his material affecting without allowing it to become maudlin. The result is mesmerizing in its own harshly minimalist way, a persuasive cross between Schindler’s List and Krapp’s Last Tape. CP