1. Life & Culture

Political documentaries have a hard time keeping up in 2016

Donald Trump, left, reacts to the crowd as he shakes hands with South Carolina Freedom Summit co-host David Bossie, founder of Citizens United, which has a Hillary: The Movie sequel in the works.
Donald Trump, left, reacts to the crowd as he shakes hands with South Carolina Freedom Summit co-host David Bossie, founder of Citizens United, which has a Hillary: The Movie sequel in the works.
Published Aug. 18, 2016

Where is Michael Moore when we need him?

Conservatives insist we don't. Liberals wish Moore had a Fahrenheit 9/11 up his flannel sleeve for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Those of us in the middle miss the days when a political documentary could rile the electorate, when filmmakers like Moore and Citizens United founder David Bossie could be both reviled and revered as enemies of the state.

In this election cycle so far, Trump hasn't come under the scrutiny of cinema verite, a perk of being seen as such an unlikely finalist a year ago. Filmmakers simply didn't have time to produce anything, pro or con.

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

"The left was probably prepared to do some short films on other people, but they weren't necessarily ready for Donald Trump," Bossie said in a telephone interview.

"But there's a lot of material out there. Obviously, the guy's had TV shows and interviews. ... You would think that somebody would be able to put something together, if they wanted to."

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has faced only the insinuations of Dinesh D'Souza's Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. That documentary has grossed $12 million, just over a third of what D'Souza's 2012 film 2016: Obama's America earned.

Hillary's America is only marginally about this election, devoting most of its running time to the second half of its title, attempting to undermine the Democratic Party's legacy of social and economic justice. The movie's critical rating on RottenTomatoes.com is 4 percent, with only one positive review.

D'Souza still believes his movie is important viewing before Nov. 8.

"Let's say there are 2 million undecided voters out there," D'Souza said by telephone from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

"If a superPAC or any group dropped DVDs of my movie into those 2 million mailboxes, it could make a difference in the election. I'm not able to do that, but it would make a difference."

Or would it? Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't derail George W. Bush's re-election. D'Souza's earlier movie didn't keep President Barack Obama from a second term. If recent polling holds up, Hillary's America will continue the streak of noninfluence.

That won't stop Bossie from using cinema to further conservative views and attack opposing candidates. The founder of Citizens United, whose U.S. Supreme Court victory opened the campaign contribution floodgates, likens political cinema to a game.

"You want to be in it," Bossie said. "If you sit on the sidelines ... you don't even have the opportunity to make an impact, you don't have the opportunity to educate people or participate in the process.

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"By sitting on the sidelines you're ceding the field, and I don't know anyone on either side of the aisle who's willing to do that."

Citizen United's filmmaking branch previously targeted a Clinton presidential bid, in 2008, with the unflattering documentary Hillary: The Movie. She lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.

Bossie confirmed a sequel is being produced.

"We're working on it," he said. "We'll have something to say (about a release date) soon but not just yet."

Sometime closer to polls opening in November?

"Of course," Bossie said. "I don't do anything that's not appropriately timed."

Hillary: The Movie was part of the first wave of conservative documentaries, an election cycle after Fahrenheit 9/11 led a wave of documentaries critical of President Bush and wars in the Middle East.

After experimenting with a 2004 rebuttal to Moore's film, Citizens United began shaping its strategy: selective distribution and marketing chiefly to red-state theaters, online sales and private screenings at donors' homes.

By 2012, Citizens United was sponsoring a conservative film festival at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. The event returned in Cleveland, featuring such selections as The First American, a George Washington biography produced by Newt Gingrich, and Torchbearer, a faith-based documentary starring Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson.

Of course, Clinton was a hot festival topic, with Hillary: The Movie reprised, and Clinton Cash, a documentary accusing her and former President Bill Clinton of financial malfeasance. D'Souza also shared his documentary with nearly 2,000 delegates at a private screening.

Meanwhile, for the first time since its 2008 debut, the Impact Film Festival, a liberal cinema showcase, wasn't held at the RNC. The festival brought five issue-oriented films to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The list included documentaries about the Sandy Hook school massacre and television pioneer Norman Lear.

So, where is Michael Moore? Sitting out another election movie cycle, his third since Fahrenheit 9/11 won an Academy Award. In January, Moore released Where to Invade Next, a toothless chronicle of what other nations do more easily than us. It's his second-lowest grossing doc ever, stalling at $3.8 million.

Moore has predicted that Trump will win the election, offering five reasons why on his website (michaelmoore.com). He clearly doesn't want that to happen, but hasn't done what he does best to stop it.

Attempts to reach Moore for comment were unsuccessful. His Creative Artists Agency representative referred me to his website, where only Facebook and Twitter links are available. "That's how he wants to be contacted," the rep said. Several requests went unanswered.

Moore is missing a great inspiration. Hollywood couldn't script a juicier presidential campaign than this one.

Two candidates in a Strangelovian stare-down, one crudely charismatic, the other controversially historic.

Someone should make a movie about this.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.


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