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7 provocative documentaries that show how our political process has evolved

Boys State is just the latest movie to paint a picture of a changing system in a televised America.

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A teenaged boy looks over a podium.
Steven Garza in the new documentary Boys State.
A24 / Apple+
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The national political conventions are upon us — and they’ll look very different this year, thanks to the pandemic. (The Democratic National Convention, anchored in Milwaukee but mostly online, will be held from August 17 to 20; the GOP counterpart, after some moving around, is slated to happen both online and in Charlotte from August 24 to 27.)

But while some people’s TV screens will be occupied by convention antics for the next few weeks, I’m much more interested in a movie about a very different kind of political convention: One that’s made up entirely of teenagers. For Boys State, documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) traveled to Texas to follow the state’s 2018 summer session of a program called, well, Boys State. (There’s a Girls State program, too.) Administered by the American Legion, Boys State is a gathering of more than a thousand 17-year-old boys who, over the course of one week, form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns. The intent is to learn about and experience firsthand how the American system of government works.

The film is uplifting, funny, thrilling, and revealing. The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to cultivate consensus and win. And their experiences provide both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.

Earlier this year at Sundance, Boys State won the festival’s top documentary prize and broke the record for the highest acquisition price paid for a documentary, with A24 and Apple buying the film for $12 million. And now, Apple subscribers can watch the film on AppleTV+.

Boys State is less of a “political documentary” and more of an exploration of the political process. And personally, I find process-oriented films far more interesting than polemical political documentaries designed to convince you to vote one way or another.

Luckily, almost as soon as lightweight cameras became readily available in the 1960s, documentarians started hauling them onto convention floors and campaign trails. The result is that there are lots of great documentaries (and mockumentaries) about the American political circus, and I couldn’t possibly name them all. But here are a few important and particularly revealing films that give a peek into what’s changed in the American political process since TV and film became part of campaigns in the 1960s — and what hasn’t.

A trailblazing documentary that gave the nation a new view of the political process

The 1960 film Primary wasn’t just illuminating, it was groundbreaking. The film centers on the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in which the two candidates were John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The filmmakers (documentary buffs will recognize the creative team of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, who together went on to make three more films about Kennedy) used new, lighter equipment that allowed them to more easily follow and capture an intimate view of the candidates, their staff, and their supporters, and in so doing they created a foundational work of “direct cinema” that informed decades of political video-based reporting. And they did it all in a time when television and video images were starting to become a major force in political campaigns.

How to watch it: Primary is streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes and Amazon.

A revealing look at how punditry morphed into polarized political debate

In 1968, National Review founder William F. Buckley and author and provocateur Gore Vidal — famous for their strong opinions about politics and each other — were recruited by ABC to participate in a series of on-air debates during the major political parties’ conventions. Protests and demonstrations marked both parties’ gatherings that turbulent year. And the debates were famously contentious, too, rocketing ABC to the top of the ratings and solidifying, as this documentary argues, the future of hyperpartisan politics and entertainment-driven, shouting-head TV news punditry. Best of Enemies (directed by Morgan Neville, who also made the hit Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor) recounts the debates and their fallout. The result is exciting but also chilling — an origin story for a long national nightmare.

How to watch it: Best of Enemies is streaming on Hulu for subscribers and for free on Tubi. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on services including Apple TV and Google Play.

A ground-level, boundary-pushing view of political conventions and the people who go to them

Four More Years was a groundbreaking, hour-long “guerrilla” TV movie consisting of footage shot during the Republican National Convention in 1972, when “four more years” was the chant from Nixon’s fans. The first independently produced videotape to be broadcast on television, the film focuses on media coverage, protests, and Nixon’s young supporters, with long, revealing interviews. Some people in the film claimed they didn’t know they’d appear, and the crew tried to stay inconspicuous. Four More Years is revealing — and aired on TV two years before Nixon’s resignation.

How to watch it: You can stream Four More Years on Vimeo or at the Media Burn Archive.

A formally inventive demonstration of how Ronald Reagan’s presidency mimicked a three-act TV structure

Was Ronald Reagan the consummate performer? The Reagan Show makes the case that the former actor’s onscreen experience was a perfect training ground for his presidency, chronicling the Reagan administration entirely through news reports and footage shot by the administration itself. It uses Reagan’s work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, opening with a very prescient-seeming clip of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley, at the end of his time in office, that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.”

How to watch it: The Reagan Show is streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on services like Apple TV and Google Play.

A mockumentary miniseries about authenticity and the campaign trail

In 1988, nobody named Jack Tanner was actually vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. But HBO broadcast an 11-episode miniseries about the fictional Tanner anyhow, directed by Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau. Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) is an idealistic Democratic congressman who’s on the campaign trail, accompanied by his 19-year-old daughter Alexandra (Cynthia Nixon). Tanner struggles to distinguish himself against a pack of competitors until his campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) figures out how to present him through footage of pep talks he gives his staff, caught on the sly. The series blurs reality and fiction; “real” people like Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and many others show up as themselves, and Tanner’s campaign staff is constantly talking about his competitors (including Joe Biden, who was running for president back then, too). It’s a brilliantly satirical series that skewers the process of running for political office more than political positions themselves, and with Altman at the helm, its style feels different from most TV mockumentary series as well.

How to watch it: Tanner ’88 is streaming on the Criterion Channel and on HBO Max. The series is also available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon.

An exploration of a campaign navigating upset and scandal

By 1992, presidential candidates were used to having cameras follow them around, but even by those standards, Bill Clinton’s campaign was unusually loaded with defining moments that made for great clips. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were there to document them in The War Room, which follows strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos through the primary season, including Clinton’s surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire, the Gennifer Flowers scandal, and much more. The film offers an inside look at a campaign through the eyes of those who lived it with the intimacy that we’ve come to expect from our campaign documentaries.

How to watch it: The War Room is streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase on digital platforms including Apple TV and Amazon.

Or, if you want a movie that’s not political at all ...

... but still taps into how our sensationalized media ecosystem aids in creating some of the problems that plague our politics, here are three worth checking out:

  • The 2014 film Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an unscrupulous stringer who rushes to the scene of violent incidents in LA to capture them on camera and sell the footage to local TV news stations that are hungry for content. It’s streaming on Netflix.
  • Robert Greene’s 2016 nonfiction thriller Kate Plays Christine follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to “play” Christine Chubbuck, the Florida TV reporter who shot herself on air in 1974. (Chubbuck’s story was reportedly the inspiration for the 1976 film Network.) It’s available to Topic subscribers or to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon.
  • Being There, Hal Ashby’s 1979 comedy based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel, is a fable about a man named Chance (Peter Sellers) who is shut off from the outside world his whole life, except through TV. Then, one day, he has to leave the house. Through a series of happy accidents and willful mishearings, Chance becomes a confidant and adviser to the president, who along with the rest of the country adores his “simple brand of wisdom.” Being There is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including Apple TV and Google Play.

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