Film Review: The Brainwashing of My Dad

A scruffily made but heartfelt documentary about how the filmmaker’s kind, apolitical father was transformed by right-wing talk radio into a rage-filled ditto-head points fingers in all the right directions but fails to dig deep enough.
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Presenting itself as a Chomsky-esque takedown of a well-oiled propaganda machine, Jen Senko’s The Brainwashing of My Dad defines itself as “a story about a media phenomenon that changed a father and divided a nation.” The phenomenon Senko’s referring to is the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton identified back in 1998, after years of unhinged assaults on her and Bill by a well-funded network of conservative magazines, columnists, TV personalities and talk-radio hosts. It’s a conspiracy that Senko knows quite well, having watched her father turn from a “nonpolitical Kennedy Democrat,” the kind who would give a homeless black man money while calling him “Sir,” into the sort of splenetic crank who rants about “feminazis” and how the liberals are destroying America. It’s the kind of thing many Americans have encountered in the past couple of decades after receiving a deluge of angry right-wing e-mail forwards from their suddenly pitchfork-wielding parents. Like Senko, the change has seemed abrupt, inexplicable and frighteningly cult-like.

What happened to Senko’s father? According to Senko, the transformation occurred after his commute changed. On his longer drive, he started listening to talk radio, particularly his new hero Rush Limbaugh. Senko constructs her film as two narratives circling around this transformation. The one that she spends the most resources on is an investigation of the creation of the right-wing media ecosphere. Senko assembles an impressively heavy-hitting roster of writers and researchers, from chroniclers of the conservative movement like Rick Perlstein to media descramblers like Noam Chomsky and even David Brock, the lead commando in the anti-Clinton mud-slinging campaign who later turned apostate and now recounts the ways that his old conspiracy distorts the truth.

The story is a familiar one, though one that hasn’t been covered much in documentaries. As any history of modern American conservatism must, Senko starts with the fetid swamp of the Nixon administration, where media guru Roger Ailes perfected the us-versus-them anti-elitism and TV-friendly outrage template. It’s a quick walk from there through the movement’s signposts, from the 1970s surge of conservative-friendly think tanks to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and Clinton’s deregulation of the media industry to the 1990s rise of the twin behemoths of right-wing media: Limbaugh and Ailes’ Fox News channel. Senko’s interviewees draw the outlines of this alternative universe of interlocking media-spheres and vividly describe a perpetual “noise machine” of fear and misinformation creating the kind of addictive, endorphin-rush perpetual outrage that seems indistinguishable from nationalist propaganda or cult brainwashing.

The less developed narrative that Senko folds into the primary story tries to tell the more personal side of how this media surge created a divisive societal shift. As part of her online funding drive, Senko solicited stories from people who had similar experiences with their family members. Throughout the film, she weaves snippets of Skype conversations with those who responded. Their stories are short, painful and frequently similar, telling how families were torn apart after a once-close relative fell under the spell of the noise machine and, again like a cult member, started cutting off everyone who didn’t agree with them.

If Senko could have spent more time on this, The Brainwashing of My Dad could have become something revelatory. She’s clearly hit a nerve, and her film will find a dedicated niche audience of people with similar experiences. But she is hampered by not including enough of her father (who passed away not long before the film’s release) and the other case studies, talking too much about them instead of to them. The film’s technical crudity (helped only somewhat by Bill Plympton’s jaunty animation) and disinterest in digging past the propaganda tactics to examine the underlying personal dynamics fueling this hunger for conspiracy-minded fear-mongering keep it from uncovering anything truly eye-opening.

A telling moment comes late in the film, when Senko’s family members try to change their father’s media habits, signing him up for e-mails from left-wing outlets like Alternet and Truthout. The film’s approving nod towards this tactic undercuts Senko’s argument about media bias and manufactured consent. Substituting one propaganda for another shouldn’t be the answer.

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