For all of my earlier grousing about a handful of titles, 2010 was a remarkably strong year for documentaries. If we are indeed presented with the movies we deserve, the constant blame-game nature of our national zeitgeist played out beautifully in movie theaters. Heroes and villains abounded in films like The Tillman Story, Inside Job, and Waiting for “Superman.” Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer was as much an indictment of the same Wall Street figures prosecuted in Inside Job as it was a tale of personal demise and gradual rehabilitation.
And in another nod to this year’s crop of documentaries, even the biopics were good. Besides the former governor of New York, Client 9 director Alex Gibney profiled the onetime super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose exploits detailed in Casino Jack and the United States of Money approached cartoonish supervillainy. In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg managed to redeem the comedienne. Old, grouchy, and desiccated by countless surgical fixes, Rivers—more punchline than joke teller at this point in her career—was almost human.
But more often than not, we saw a world based on good and evil. In our politics today people are either government-loving socialists or tea-sipping freedom fighters. In our documentaries this year we got a handful of honest men and women standing up to establishmentarians pulling strings, lining their pockets, and obfuscating the truth. Client 9 doesn’t excuse Spitzer’s whoring, but his downfall was certainly expedited by the shenanigans of the political operative Roger Stone (so bold in his chicanery that he wears a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back) and the financier Ken Langone. Gibney’s other film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money was a veritable rogues gallery of the forces that dominated Capitol Hill for the first half of this decade. With Ralph Reed, former Rep. Bob Ney, and the unrepentant former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay retelling their fleecing of Indian tribes and manipulation of the Northern Mariana Islands among other endeavors, there’s no questioning who’s to blame for our shoddy Congressional behavior.
The Tillman Story took aim at more shadowy targets. Amir Bar-Lev’s tale of Pat Tillman, the square-jawed NFL safety who ditched a lucrative contract to join the Army after 9/11, is an investigation of two deaths—first when Tillman fell under friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan (“I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” were reportedly his last words) and again when the Pentagon, Congress, and the media buried the true nature of his final moments and distorted Tillman’s persona from the liberal, bookish atheist he really was into some kind of conservative, God-fearing warrior. The most defiant scene in any film this year came when Rich Tillman spoke at his older brother’s funeral, which was invaded by the likes of John McCain and Maria Shriver who driveled about Pat being “called home to God.” The younger Tillman, beer in hand, took the podium and told the crowd, “Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”
Afghanistan was also the setting of the year’s finest documentary, Restrepo, which required no obvious villains to show the pure hell of a 15-month tour of duty in what is now the longest war in our history. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded with an Army unit in the Korengal Valley, dubbed by many the “most dangerous place in the world,” and saw this battalion turn from eager young men going to war into hardened, worn-down veterans. Though an apolitical film, Restrepo demands our attention and forces us to contemplate why the war in Afghanistan is continued seemingly without end.
But no documentary should have made us angrier than Inside Job. Charles Ferguson’s examination of the financial collapse of 2008 the ensuing recession featured the least opaque villains populating Wall Street and Washington. (Kristin Davis, madam of the prostitution ring that brought down Eliot Spitzer, shows up here too.) And while Michael Moore attempted to extract some truths on this topic a year earlier with Capitalism: A Love Story, Ferguson’s sober, academic approach produced an argument not nearly half as sensational but far more damning than Moore’s. Lots of films are good at ginning up momentary rage from the audience, but after seeing Inside Job and realizing that the same players who enabled this catastrophe remain at the helm regardless of who occupies the White House, you’ll stay mad.
I wrote plenty about Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” earlier this year, but in examining other documentaries’ heroes and villains, it’s impossible to ignore a film with a superhero in the title. Though in no advocacy piece was the finger-pointing more self-righteous. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, was portrayed monstrously against the virtuous Michelle Rhee. Troubling as many public schools are and as badly focused as the teachers’ unions may be, Waiting for “Superman” was a rather empty, one-note argument—unions bad, charter schools good—with great publicity in a national mood where everyone wants someone to blame. NBC News’ “Education Week” was little more than a thinly veiled commercial for the film. Flawed as Guggenheim’s argument was, it remains a popular tack, even fueling the write-in attempt to reelect Adrian Fenty. One of the year’s most talked-about YouTube videos is of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a town hall meeting tearing into a teacher who questioned his education budget cuts. And though she no longer runs D.C. Public Schools, Rhee is angling to remain a force in public education, and if her recent cover essay in Newsweek is any hint, she’s spoiling for more fights.
Documentaries that focused on the art world were far less combative. Lucy Walker’s Waste Land spent time among the impoverished Brazilians who make their livings by picking away at the world’s largest garbage heap create breathtaking works of art out of their collections. And there was Banksy’s delightfully twisted Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which Los Angeles art scene gadfly Thierry Guetta attempted to make a film about the secretive street art community only to have the mysterious English artist-provocateur seize the camera and reverse the roles. While Bansky’s oeuvre leads him into battle with guardians of proper society and our normal sensibilities, Exit Through the Gift Shop was a happy, if wild respite from the Manichean world of so many of the aforementioned films.
But more often than not, we got angry documentaries. Living in angry times produces a lot of black-and-white arguments, and this year most of them clicked. I have no desire to foment more unhappiness with the state of things, but it’s impossible to separate this year’s bounty of excellent documentaries from our pissy outlook on the world right now.