You could argue, depending on your definition, that films like 'The Social Network' and 'Secretariat' are documentaries. They are at least easily considered nonfiction films. If they were books they'd be in the nonfiction section along with the book equivalents of documentaries. Though they both play a bit loose with facts this isn't enough to call them historical fiction. We lump them in with fiction films by calling them narrative features, but I've never quite understood this choice of terminology. Many docs have narratives, too. Perhaps the best phrasing is something more like "dramatic nonfiction films." Nah, there are more and more documentaries filled with drama lately. How about the reverse, "nonfiction dramas"?
We all have an idea in our heads of what documentaries are. And neither those two "nonfiction dramas" nor any of this season's other "based on a true story" movies, including 'Conviction,' fit the bill. Is the confusion all the Academy's fault? The Oscars are partly the reason so many biopics and uplifting stories of horses and justice are released this time of year. They also have a semi-definition of docs in their eligibility rules stipulating that contenders can only "employ partial reenactment." How much constitutes "partial" is dependent on the Academy's documentary branch, and of course perspective changes (the partial reenactments of the relative doc 'The Thin Blue Line' disqualified it more than 20 years ago), but you can bet they'll never include films as fully acted out as 'The Social Network.'
Why am I so concerned with these non-documentaries in a documentary column? Because all the criticisms people have had with the truth as represented in Aaron Sorkin's script for 'The Social Network' make me wonder if anyone would have preferred a documentary about the founding of Facebook. Some of us certainly would have welcomed one, maybe not as a replacement but as another take on the story. Regardless, it wouldn't have grossed $50 million total, let alone in two weeks, as 'The Social Network' has. And no doc about a racehorse or a woman who acquired a law degree solely to defend her brother would garner as much interest or money as the dramatized versions.
Is it really the familiar actors that make the difference? In the case of 'Conviction' it can't be the desire for heightened drama, because that movie is as emotionally flat and lacking in suspense as a film can be. A narrated slide show in which all the slides are pictures of legal documents might be more riveting. I actually doubt the film will do very well at the box office, but those who do see it in the theater -- or later on TV, where it belongs -- may not all be the same people who'd watch Hilary Swank in a romantic comedy or disaster flick or appreciate Sam Rockwell in a brilliant sci-fi flick or crime drama based on a novel. So it's a combo of the true story and the cast, I guess.
For a more gripping film about exoneration, though, you could watch the 2005 Sundance-winning documentary 'After Innocence' (currently available on Netflix Instant). It might not have the elements of sibling devotion or educational determination that 'Conviction' has (actually, the latter is barely even there in the drama), and you'll have to do with the real Barry Scheck rather than Peter Gallagher portraying him, but I guarantee you'll be more moved by its stories of seven men finally freed from Death Row thanks to new DNA evidence testing.
As for a documentary answer to 'The Social Network,' I once again highly recommend 'We Live in Public' (also a Sundance winner, and also on Netflix Instant), which isn't directly about Facebook but does focus on a more fascinating and disturbed social site developer -- Josh Harris -- while also dealing with a prophetic look at how social networking and web-based lives affect people, an aspect many wished 'The Social Network' addressed. 'Catfish' is also sort of good for that, and I've heard recommendations for this "other Facebook movie" as a compliment, maybe even as part of a double feature, to the "narrative film" ('Catfish,' by the way is also a particularly great example of how a doc can indeed be labeled a narrative feature).
Unfortunately I'm unaware of any good documentaries about any racehorses, let alone Secretariat. There seem to be a fair amount of books on him, though. But that opens up a new question of whether we're better off reading nonfiction literary works about certain subjects than watching equivalent documentaries. And that brings me to this week's documentary spotlight:
There's a moment in this new, timely-released political documentary where Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledges the film crew while talking with Kathay Feng, Executive Director of Common Cause California, offering hope that her redistricting reform initiative, Proposition 11, will pass. He says the cameras should be invited to the celebratory after party to capture a nice ending to the story, which he says would make it "like a real movie, a real documentary, a drama." It's a bit of an insult to filmmaker Jeff Reichert, for whom this is his feature directorial debut, but when your film has the chance to star Schwarzenegger, it's best to just take any punches. Besides it's still interesting hearing what the actor-turned-governor thinks constitutes a documentary film. Later, during part of his direct interview for the film he also says any election is "like a long suspense movie."
'Gerrymandering' itself lacks much suspense, even in the sections in which the film follows Feng's campaign, but it's the sort of just-right documentary that combines an actually occurring storyline with historical and expositional information on a topic that's not so well known. I can't even find another film of any format dealing with the concept of gerrymandering, nor do any books I'm seeing on Amazon look very appealing. And I for one learned enough about interesting tales involving the issue, like how Martha's Vineyard tried to secede from Massachusetts (I'd love to see more of that story, in a drama or a fully devoted doc), as well as frustrating facts concerning voting districts and prison populations.
So I guess this is a fair introduction, though it would be nice to hear more of the arguments in favor of the process. Surely there has to be more to 200 years of wonky boundary delimitation than simply that politicians are crooked babies with personal gain to be had from the tradition. Reichert's doc is completely against the allowance for politicians and other partisan parties drawing up their own districts. The film's final statement is literally, "end gerrymandering,' which is hardly non-partisan itself.
'Gerrymandering' has been and will continue playing one-time-only screenings nationwide through election day and officially opens in limited release this Friday. I also recommend you wasting lots of time with the fun, affiliated ReDistricting Game.