City Paper is not for tourists
The Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival—films that celebrate and are about investigative journalism—exist in a state of a minor identity crisis. Documentary cinema is not the same thing as journalism: they have different sets of ethics, for one thing, and they balance newsworthiness and journalism differently. That tension is also what makes this festival so exciting: This crop of films have a propulsive, urgent quality to them, and they’re so much more than the latest Netflix binge you want to tell your friends about.
WatergateDirected by Charles Ferguson
You cannot fault Charles Ferguson for a lack of ambition. After tackling the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and climate change, Ferguson is back with a dense, thoroughly researched account of our country’s greatest political scandal. Unless you’re a history buff or recently listened to the Slate podcast Slow Burn, there is a good chance you do not remember the sheer scope and size of what happened. Watergate is nearly four-and-a-half-hours long, and Ferguson does not waste a second of that runtime. He narrates the story, with a delivery that’s workmanlike and efficient. Here is a film that does not insult your intelligence, but also requires constant attention.
Ferguson takes a big risk to get inside the particulars of the conspiracy: he dramatizes Nixon’s infamous secret recordings with real actors. There are recreations where character actors play Nixon, Kissinger, Haldeman, Dean, Ehrlichman, and others. At first, this approach is almost distracting. These actors do not speak with the usual beats of a dramatic narrative, since the recordings mostly involve everyday meetings in the Oval Office. As the film continues, the actors become increasingly believable, and there is a nagging sense of the banality behind the administration’s corruption. This would not be possible by simply playing the tapes, since these scenes last for minutes and the recordings have low audio quality. In particular, the actor who plays Nixon (Douglas Hodge) avoids caricature and eventually provides a forceful performance that ranks alongside Philip Baker Hall and Frank Langella as one of the best.
Aside from the recreations, there is the usual mix of archival footage, visual aides, and interviews. The heavy-hitting interviews are from John Dean—the White House counsel who turned on Nixon—and a few lawyers from the Justice Department’s Special Prosecutor’s office. Without a sense of history, knowing that Nixon would resign at the end, this would be too overwhelming a story. There are cascading cover-ups, political betrayals, a blossoming constitutional crisis, Nixon’s eroding popularity, and a few international incidents along the way. Ferguson’s solution is simple: he keeps the film moving, with a justified sense of comeuppance as his North Star. He seems to agree with Elizabeth Holtzman, a Congresswoman who still maintains that Ford pardoning Nixon was a colossal mistake.
Holtzman’s reasoning about Ford’s error is that he unintentionally created a schism between the Executive Branch and everyone else. In other words, there is still a precedent in place for a President never seeing justice for whatever crimes they may commit. Ferguson is a left-leaning filmmaker, and he makes no secret about the parallels between Nixon and the current administration. In fact, the alternative title for Watergate is How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President. This film suggests that dedicated journalists, lawyers, politicians, and a changing tide are what it takes. Just last week The New York Times published an account of Trump’s business dealings that would probably halt any normal administration in its tracks. The breaking points for these administrations are wildly different, yet Ferguson offers hope by reminding you that it once seemed impossible to topple Nixon, too. (AZ)
Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery.
The Truth About Killer RobotsDirected by Maxim Pozdorovkin
A robot may not injure a human being. At least that’s science fiction’s longstanding Rule #1. But in The Truth About Killer Robots, we see modern exceptions. In 2016, a robot didn’t know that it was carrying explosives to take out the Dallas sniper. It just did as it was programmed. Also in 2016, a less nefarious-seeming automon was partly guilty for a death: A Tesla that was operating on autopilot—its driver reportedly watching Harry Potter instead of keeping his hands on the wheel as is required—failed to detect a tractor trailer turning in front of it. The result was horrifying. And in 2015, a robot grabbed and crushed to death a worker in a Volkswagen factory who was programming it—it definitely never heard of the rule.
This documentary, narrated by a creepy bot itself, offers some footage of these incidents and talks to commentators after the fact. Though the sniper killing was very much intended, the other two casualties were chalked up to human error—the error of trusting robots, you may think by the end of the film. Of course, these three incidents are countered by a lot of robot love (though not by human workers whose jobs are being usurped), showing the rather incredible extent to which they’re being used, such as running a hotel in China (though “I’d like to speak to a human” is one request). Killer Robots is both spooky and fascinating, at least when the short film is not repeating itself. It’s capped by perhaps its most unsettling example of the aforementioned bot love: A Chinese man “marries” his robot girlfriend, talking about how good-looking and friendly she is. Um, does not compute. (TO)
Saturday, Oct. 13 at 10 a.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.
False ConfessionsDirected by Katrine Philp
False Confessions hinges on a terrifying fact that’s all the more scary for how many of us are likely ignorant of it: it’s entirely legal for the police to lie to you. The documentary by Katrine Philp explores this fact with admirable thoroughness: the ways detectives trick their suspects into signing a confession, the reasons an innocent person would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, and, perhaps most devastating, the long-term impact on those who sign false confessions, even those whose convictions are overturned.
Fundamental to the film’s impact are the police videos that show false confessions being extracted. These are long, unbroken shots in which we see the accused, often a young man, get psychologically abused until they break and do what the officer’s want. It’s compelling, heartbreaking cinema—these moments destroyed lives—and its contemporary relevance won’t go unnoticed. One of these videos is of Korey Wise, who served 13 years for sexual assault in the famous Central Park Five case that Trump notoriously weighed in on, taking out a full-page ad urging for the death penalty for the innocent boys.
Less successful is the film’s tracking of attorney Jane-Fisher Byrialsen, as she meets with experts in preparing a retrial for another victim of false confession. Her work is admirable and important, but too many of her conversations—with experts and relatives of the victims—feel staged for the film’s purpose. Her central case also lacks any resolution, which may be an accurate depiction of the slow-grinding gears of justice, but it leaves the film, like its subjects, searching for an ending. (NG)
Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Directed by Alexis Bloom
Most of Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer feels at least half a decade too late. It’s a reasonably effective takedown of the late Fox News mogul Roger Ailes, but that’s hardly a monumental achievement. Ailes was forced out of his job after numerous allegations of sexual harassment surface, each one more horrifying than the last. He died a year after his ousting. The man took down himself.
There are a few good anecdotes scattered throughout the film, such as the time that Ailes bought the little newspaper in his adopted hometown of Cold Spring, New York, and used it for political gain. It’s a fascinating microcosm of his approach in business and in life, but the rest of the film takes a broader approach and ends up saying very little. It follow Ailes from his early days as Nixon’s media advisor during his successful 1968 presidential campaign to the meteoric rise of Fox News as a media giant. The film plays with different approaches—psychoanalyzing his childhood, identifying his influence on various political figures, comparing him to a Nazi—and the result is head-spinning.
But it finds its footing in the final third, when a political hit job morphs into a tale of biography turns into a tale of #MeToo-era empowerment. After Fox News journalist Gretchen Carlson accuses him of sexual harassment, numerous women follow suit, sharing experiences direct to Bloom’s camera that most viewers will never have heard before. Given how well the film has demonstrated Ailes’ pattern of harassment, intimidation, and abuse, these stories have a cathartic effect. A powerful man held accountable for harassment and abuse? Flaws aside, it’s just the story we need. (NG)
Saturday, Oct. 13 at 8:30 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.
The Panama PapersDirected by Alex Winter
Alex Winter gravitates toward stories about the tech world’s underbelly. He directed Downloaded, an account of Napster and the controversy over file sharing software, as well as a documentary about BitCoin and The Silk Road. The Panama Papers is a natural next step for him, both in terms of subject and scope. The actual papers are thousands of documents from a law firm in Panama, and they detail how the wealthiest people in the world maintain dizzying income inequality through tax evasion. There was global political fallout once the stories about the papers were published, but the film is also the story about how an international team of investigative journalists worked together to study them (the documents are simply too big and complex for just one outlet). Winter weaves international intrigue alongside a journalism procedural, with a cumulative effect that’s like a spy thriller version of Spotlight. There is a lot of material to cover—these journalists have barely scratched the surface of what the papers contain—but the film is at its most alarming when it convincingly makes the case that systemic corruption and income inequality are fundamentally responsible for every global calamity out there. This film never mistakes the forest for the trees, which is important since few trees are this dense or thorny. (AZ)
Sunday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.