Film Review: Patriocracy

Brian Malone’s razor-edged documentary about dysfunctional political gridlock is less the expected partisan spoon-feeding and more like a civics lesson of unusual honesty and astringency.

Like many political documentaries these days, Brian Malone’s Patriocracy opens with a slew of media images. Arm-waving politicians in full demagogue mode shout over one another in a C-Span montage intercut with a chaplain on the floor of either the Senate or the House praying that both sides will show the “wisdom of Solomon” in their debates. It would take a meat cleaver to cut through the irony in that moment. The narrator (assumedly the multi-hyphenate Malone, who also shot, edited and composed the music for the film) asks, in the somewhat patronizing tone that is one of the film’s few downsides: “How did it get so bad? How do we get out?” Not surprisingly, everything will end with a helpful list of policy points detailing ways of getting past the partisan gridlock.

Unsurprisingly, Malone has little trouble finding politicians and political commentators willing to talk about how poisonous the rancor has become over the past few years in Washington. (The possibility that as bad as things are, they might be merely a return to the often physically violent vituperation common in the Capitol during stretches of the 19th century is never raised.) Also, unsurprisingly, a majority of them are either retired from the business or so well-ensconced in their careers that they have nothing to lose by ladling out a few doses of extreme honesty. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer is particularly forthright in his depiction of America as “an impatient society” which doesn’t have the patience for compromise and true debate. Multiple Beltway types also bemoan the demise of actual friendships between politicians of different parties, who once upon a time actually lived and worked full-time in Washington with their families, as opposed to jetting in for two or three days a week to vote the party line before going home to raise more money. Strangers, it’s noted, are easier to demonize than friends.

One of the more heroically honest interviewees is Bob Inglis, the Republican representative from South Carolina who not long ago lost his seat for (among other things) refusing to call Barack Obama a socialist. Inglis describes a larger problem, one of “tribal orthodoxies” where the partisan media filter exacerbates all the worst mud-fighting tendencies of modern politics. Malone includes a clip of Inglis telling a raucous town-hall gathering to just stop watching conspiratorial rabble-rousers like Glenn Beck; by the response, one would imagine he had just asked them to kill their first-born. This leads into an astute stretch of media analysis, pointing out the ways in which the brand of snarky news-talk embodied by the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is so frequently mistaken by viewers for actual news. Malone’s thesis points to this partisan attack-talk being one of the primary causes of the current dysfunction, in addition to the dumptruck-loads of unregulated corporate money now flowing into the political process after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

The long-serving former senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, seems willing to say just about whatever he wants, and it makes for some damning broadsides. On the subject of the cable pontificators, he calls them “vaporheads.” Simpson goes on to gleefully grouse (he clearly relishes the freedom) about the tidal wave of “bull----” that has swept across the land in the past decade or two. If only any of the currently sitting politicians could have been half as honest. (Malone is pointedly unable to get any current Republicans to give him more than a few words; the sitting Democrats are more willing to talk, but only up to a point.)

It’s a scrappy but thoughtful essay of a film, the sort of thing that would make for an excellent cover feature in a major newsweekly. While this overly earnest and bullet-pointed approach makes for only about a three-fourths successful film—the tendency to spoonfeed becomes especially acute in its last sections—that still makes Patriocracy many times more thoughtful and open-minded than most narrowcast nonfiction films about politics and the problems facing the country. The cause of all the name-calling and propagandizing that passes for political discourse these days isn’t just with one party or villainous interest group, Malone seems to be saying, it’s with us, for aiding and abetting it.