Election Day is not a federal holiday in America (yet), and it doesn't call for any exploitation by Hallmark. Each year it even results in a lot of unhappiness. But the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is a day for celebration, because it is a day to recognize the right to vote as much as it is a day to exercise that right. When I think of Election Day festivities, I envision the "Election Day bonfire" described by Harpo Marx in his autobiography "Harpo Speaks." This was a biennial tradition in the Tammany-era New York City that the Marx Brothers grew up in, and I can only imagine what a delight it was to have such an observance on this day. For me, festivities are as simple as renting a political-themed film, particularly one about democracy, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Manderlay. This year, I decided to choose a non-fiction title, but with so many political documentaries coming out these days, it was hard to pick just one.
This year alone has seen a number of election-related docs released, including one nominated for an Oscar (Street Fight). There is a yet-to-be-released film on the political career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is up for re-election today. There is a doc about voting machines called Hacking Democracy which premiered on HBO last Thursday and which will be airing again today (unfortunately, I don't have cable). And of course, An Inconvenient Truth will be released on DVD later this month. It isn't directly about an election or voting, but it is sort of marked by the reminder of Gore's loss in the 2000 election.
So, with all the choices out there for me and you for doc-watching on Election Day, I've narrowed down a list of seven that are worth checking out for different reasons. They aren't all great, they aren't all liked by me and there's one I haven't actually seen (I'll give you a hint: it just recently came out on DVD and isn't available yet from Netflix).
- Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) - How does a German propaganda film about the 1934 Nazi Party rally relate to U.S. democracy? Well, for one thing, it reminds us of how great it is to live in America. For another, it is important to remember that the Nazi Party was originally voted into the Reichstag by the people and while it never received the majority of the vote, the Party was quite popular. This popularity is remarkably visible in Riefenstahl's grand-scale, well-covered document of the rally, and for some people it can serve as a parallel for any American politician or political party that has a scary hold on the people's favor. Sure, our government has guards against any tyranny on the level that Nazi Germany had after its disabling of elections and announcement of dictatorship, but with executive powers that have grown tremendously, you never know ...
- Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) - Even considering the year it was made, this campaign documentary is not great. Too short and inadequate at 53 minutes, it also displays such bad sound production that at times speeches are unclear and at other times applause sounds uncomfortably like gunshots. Still, it was one of the first films to really capture a fly on the wall depiction of campaigning, and it can be excused for its being filmed right before equipment was invented that could better handle such cinéma vérité style. On an historical level, it is also good for its archive footage of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in their old-fashioned race for the Wisconsin primary. Plus, it paved the way for all the campaign films released since.
- Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) - Technically it is not a documentary, but it may well have fewer staged sequences than some other famous non-fiction films. Wexler shot his dramatic story of a TV-news reporter purposely amidst the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, anticipating the violent protest that would erupt outside, and managed to document a lot of real life around his fictional characters. In mixing the actual footage with the staged, he not only blurs the line between the two, he also represents the political climate of the time better than most strict documentaries.
- The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984) - Winner of the feature documentary Oscar, this look at Harvey Milk, the iconic, openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco is a comprehensive memorial. It is also representative of the gains made by minorities and non-traditional politicians in the system of American politics, while also sadly depicting the worst possible effect of such gains. The most striking thing in the film is an audio recording of Milk as he forecasts his assassination; it is a display of his courage that he knew the kind of disfavor he'd be met with and continued on anyway. Hopefully the film encourages and influences other potential politicians, gay or straight.
- The War Room (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, 1993) - It didn't win the Oscar, but it has proved important as a perfection of the campaign doc originated with Primary (which Pennebaker worked on) and as a model for the subgenre since. It is also significant for not focusing as much on the actual politician (Bill Clinton) as the people who run the campaign. It made movie stars out of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Also notable for its contrast with Hegedus' latest, Al Franken: God Spoke, which follows the external influence of entertainment on an election, The War Room is a must for anyone curious about the internal workings of the political system.
- Freedom on My Mind (Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, 1994) - Another Oscar nominee, this is an important film that can get lost, and pretty much has gotten lost, in the sea of campaign and propaganda docs flooding the election-themed category of films. It focuses on the civil rights movement, specifically the Mississippi voter registration project of 1961-1964. It documents the challenges of minority suffrage in America and the racism existing in the political system, nearly a century after the 15th Amendment was ratified.
- Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004) - I'm not a fan of this film, but it is important to include here, as it is definitely worth looking at on Election Day. Two years later, it is interesting to see how delusional we were to think that a film might influence an election. The popularity of this doc, not only in its favor and box office success, but also in its existence in the consciousness of all of America, had Moore especially thinking he was contributing strongly to a Democratic victory. But we now know that movies don't win elections. They can only document them.