Truth goes in and out of fashion. The White House says things are going great in Iraq, that Katrina was somebody else's fault, that it has the right to spy on its citizens, that global warming doesn't exist, that deficits don't matter, that oil dependency is bad but we don't actually have to conserve any. Meanwhile, Hollywood can't craft stories to rival those of the real world, can't turn its audience away from blogs and iPods and MySpace and Netflix. The millennial trend of Michael Moore and company is obvious: Actuality, whether uplifting or tragic, is the best thing on-screen, whether large or small. As a result, documentaries are flourishing. (Although the five Oscar-nominated docs of 2005 are mostly a joke: March of the Penguins and not Grizzly Man?) Two current examples are Why We Fight (which opens Friday, Feb. 10, at the Neptune) and After Innocence (which runs Friday, Feb. 10–Thurs., Feb. 16, at the Varsity).
Not great examples, however. They both contain compelling stories, while the storytelling lags behind. Both are oppositional docs, clearly left-leaning in their arguments. The first opposes Eisenhower's famous "military-industrial complex," and the second a flawed criminal-justice system whose glaring deficiencies have been revealed by DNA evidence. Why We Fight is the better made of the pair, but After Innocence is no less important, despite its clunky structure. And both have at their core an essential reliance on data; they are argued from observation, not theory. If the conservative—or neocon, whatever the hell that means—starts with a sweeping vision of how the world ought to be, then chooses anecdotes to inductively support his perspective, it is the art of the documentarian to nag with inconvenient facts that don't fit the pattern.
This does mean, unfortunately, that most docs today are poorly formed, hectoring, wagging their fingers at you—guilt, guilt, guilt! And nobody likes a scold, which is precisely why Murderball and March of the Penguins are among the Academy-favored five nominees for the Oscars this March. If Republicans, and a successful Hollywood formula picture, are all about paternal confidence, action, and a lack of ambiguity, documentaries are like your mother: chiding you to wash your hands, make the bed, and stop lying about junk food between meals. It's not an enviable position for filmmakers, and it's the rare doc, like Grizzly Man or Capturing the Friedmans, that actually becomes a work of art while showing the world not as we'd like to have it, but as it actually is: unfair, unruly, incapable of compliance with theory.
I mentionFriedmans by happy coincidence, because its director, Andrew Jarecki, is the brother of Eugene Jarecki, who created Why We Fight. (And if they've got a sister, I want to marry her; theirs is a family with the right genetic material.) Its star is unquestionably Ike, whose 1961 farewell speech rings prophetic. A man who fought in real wars and led real troops, unlike draft-dodging Dubya and Cheney or the Heritage Foundation/American Enterprise Institute chickenhawks, Dwight D. Eisenhower still has the authority to criticize the arms makers (including Boeing) who profit from foreign adventures. (His son and granddaughter also amplify those views, invaluably.) This is Jarecki's essential thesis: Munitioneers deliberately locate their plants in prime congressional districts and direct their campaign contributions in such a way that our sons' and daughters' blood flows dollar-green in Iraq today. It's the military-industrial-congressional complex.
Around it, however, is Fight's questionable indictment of the "American empire" school of U.S. history, a less frothy foaming-at-the-mouth variety of Chomskyism articulated here by Gore Vidal and various Beltway cast-outs. (One raises horses on a farm, so you know she's credible.) When Jarecki casts into montage past presidents and their foreign misadventures—Honduras, Cuba, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia, Somalia—he also overplays his hand. The Bay of Pigs was one thing, Kosovo another. Would it have been imperialist (or neoconservative) to intervene in Rwanda? Or Haiti? If we went into Darfur, would that be about oil or Halliburton?
While Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) doesn't construct an entirely new or persuasive argument out of this depressing data, some of the supporting voices are pretty convincing. Besides Ike, there's retired N.Y.C. police officer Wilton Sekzer, also a Vietnam helicopter gunner, who lost a son on 9/11. "The government exploited my feelings of patriotism," he says of the subsequent Iraq war. Then there's Sen. John McCain, who says of Eisenhower's old warning, "His words, unfortunately, have come true. I hate to use the word 'corruption,' but this borders on that." He's got my vote.
FEW OF US, though, would've initially voted to acquit the defendants of After Innocence. Cops, eyewitnesses, and rape victims pointed unequivocally at the accused, all of them poor and poorly represented by legal counsel. In 1993, however, after a groundbreaking episode of The Phil Donahue Show on DNA-based exoneration (yes, television can be a force for good), a flood of convicts appealed to Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who had formed the Innocence Project in 1992. Since then, some 150 men have been freed from sentences for rape and murder. But, here's the catch: only after some had served over two decades in maximum security prisons. And, here's the second catch: When an Innocence Project attorney shows us unanswered correspondence from prisoners (not all of them innocent, of course, let's not be naive), the file room is overflowing. The statistics are bound to mean hundreds more have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated.
Innocence introduces us to eight such cases, any one of which has enough gut-wrenching drama for a documentary of its own. Just freed after serving 21 years for a murder he didn't commit, Nick Yarris says he can't get used to the silence and outdoor climate: "I was allergic to fresh air. It was hurting me to breathe." Needless to say, he's got some adjustment issues, which include haranguing passers-by with a megaphone in front of the Pennsylvania courthouse where he was convicted. Other men in his position can't find jobs, can't deal with the gap in their lives that took away their youth and prospects. They feel, as one guy says, that their manhood was stolen, and Innocence does address compensation measures before various legislatures (liberal Massachusetts is so far the only state to pass such a law). Unfortunately, director Jessica Sanders can't decide whether to emphasize the "after" or the "before," since both sides are so compelling. She just jumps around from one sob story to the next, back to the trials, down to Florida for a guy awaiting exoneration, and back to the Innocence Project attorneys in New York. She ought to be arrested for such poor filmmaking.
Among the exonerated, the case of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson is so incredible, so moving, that Hollywood could never conceive such a script. In 1984, white North Carolina college student Thompson was raped in her apartment by a black burglar; she concentrated hard on his face and physical appearance—the better to describe him to the police. When they arrested Cotton a month later, she identified him as her assailant. The wrong man. After a decade in jail, his DNA positively excluded him from the crime and another DNA sample positively matched the real rapist, now imprisoned.
Thompson's eyes had betrayed her—and, more important, condemned the soft-spoken Cotton. The story gets better: Ashamed of her error, she asked his forgiveness, and he gave it. Today they are friends who conduct presentations on witness misidentification and DNA evidence; she wrote a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject in 2000, citing a pending death-penalty case hinging on a brief eyewitness glimpse of a fatal shooting 30 feet away. Before the scheduled execution, denying further review of the case, the state's chief executive declared, "As far as I'm concerned, there has not been one innocent person executed since I've been governor." During his tenure, 135 were executed in his state, Texas, from where he was then running his campaign for president. I don't need to tell you how that election turned out.
DV AND CABLE and laptop editing and probably blogs and even cell phone cameras have made real-life documentation much more accessible, more populist. It's axiomatic that technology turns everyone into a potential filmmaker. What no one could've predicted is a newfound interest in the compelling nature of reality. Liberated from narrative and spin, the truth isn't always pretty, and that's a beautiful thing.