By Michael Miller.
At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival several films—both narrative features and documentaries—probed the theme of masculinity from different perspectives. In the buddy film Land Ho! (directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz), Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) are two retired guys each trying to make sense of their new phase in life. At one time, they were brothers-in-law, having married sisters. Colin’s wife Patricia died several years ago and he seems to have been a little lost ever since. Mitch and Edith Ann divorced a while ago and as we get to know Mitch more we can understand why. Mitch is a poster child of old school male chauvinism. He’s always in charge and the master of his universe. That he had a career as a surgeon is not a surprise. The way he talks about women is positively paleolithic. Colin is more of a modern man; he’s appalled at Mitch’s attitude and behavior, but curiously never calls him on it. Colin is quiet and contemplative, yet he is never portrayed as un-masculine. He’s the lonely guy you get to know at the cocktail party where neither of you know anyone else. The filmmakers reinforce the distinctions between the two men in a scene in an art gallery as they regard the work of contemporary art according to their personalities.
The men have come together at Mitch’s suggestion after a considerable time apart. They reunite not long after Colin’s second marriage dissolves. Mitch wants to cheer up his old pal and announces that they will depart for Iceland for rejuvenation. What follows is a pretty standard road movie in which viewers and the film’s protagonists meet an array of secondary characters that help us get to know the main characters more deeply. While Mitch acts boorishly, it’s hard to dismiss him entirely. At his core, he’s a well-meaning man. But his complete lack of awareness of the privilege his race, age, and gender endow is in stark contrast to the introspective Colin. Ultimately, Land Ho! succeeds in displaying the nuances of these characters.
Several documentaries also explored various aspects of masculinity in the festival. A Brony Tail (directed by Brent Hodge) introduces a subculture of predominantly straight male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Contrary to expectations, these men are absolutely sincere in their fandom. Many are attracted to the better points of human nature espoused by the cartoon and some have found an artistic outlet through their Bronyism. What is interesting about this community is the complete lack of irony these men exhibit; there are no winks, nods or knowing glances; although, one of the psychologists interviewed on screen appears highly skeptical in an amusing interview.
An equally enthusiastic subculture are the AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) introduced in Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary (directed by Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson). This slick, well-made documentary provides a slightly tongue-in-cheek history of the ubiquitous plastic block(s). Narrated by Jason Bateman, the film shows the Lego designers developing new products and project kits at Lego’s headquarters in Denmark. We are introduced to one of many Lego conventions held around the world where fans and Lego designers mingle and compete in robot wars and blind-build competitions. We also meet Alice Finch, who has won awards three years running with her recreations including Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings. Her sense of pride for being recognized by this male-dominated sub-culture is infectious.
Another documentary that treats issues of work and play is Fishtail (directed by Andrew Renzi), which observes the cowboys of the Fishtail Basin Ranch in Montana through a calving season. This contemplative piece is more an ode to the dignity of work than a celebration of masculinity. Harry Dean Stanton recites poetry in voice-over as images of the cowboys are shown, and there is not much of a narrative arc in the film; rather the film presents the quotidian experience of the ranch. The pair of cowboys we meet are not identified and are practically interchangeable; but that’s not the point. Ranching on this small scale is vanishing in the U.S. This point is reflected in the sun-drenched cinematography 16mm graininess which evokes an earlier time. Aside from the cows, no female is on screen for most of this doc’s 61 minutes. But in one of the last shots, the cowboys take their children into the scruff for some target practice. The families have been absent from the screen up to this point. The kids (all pre-teen boys) are terrible shots as they attempt to subdue various bottles and cans. However, the last shooter nails the target expertly; the shooter: it’s Mom, echoing the notion of women succeeding in a male-dominated environment
Tribeca’s more serious side was on full display in the form of two politically-inspired offerings. The surveillance state is alive and well in the U.S. and unfortunately it has a long history. 1971 (directed by Johanna Hamilton), is a taut documentary revealing the actions of the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” a group of eight protesters who successfully uncovered significant illegal domestic espionage in that eponymous year. Until recently, the actions of this group have been secret. Comprised of activists and academics from suburban Philadelphia, the group had been involved in non-violent protests against the war in Vietnam. Sensing that the FBI had been infiltrating protest groups and spying on otherwise lawful assemblies, the group set out to burglarize a small local FBI outpost in Media, Pennsylvania. The film artfully intertwines period footage, talking head interviews of the subjects, and well-constructed recreations to tell the story of the planning and execution of the break-in. Hamilton is also adept at bringing us up to speed with the mood and what was going on in this time before Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. In the dead of night, draft board offices were being broken into and in some cases firebombed. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s founding director, was suspicious of all dissent. Perceiving there to be pervasive threats to the national security, Hoover and the FBI embarked on a program of domestic spying on groups of the New Left. On March 8, 1971 the activist group entered the lightly secured FBI offices, having surreptitiously cased the layout and security in a ruse. The timing of the burglary was chosen with purpose; it was the night of the first Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazer boxing match and most of America would be rapt by that event. That evening, the burglars successfully carted away the entire contents of the FBI’s file cabinets in suitcases and trunks.
Over the next several weeks, the activists—in secret—reviewed, categorized, and cataloged the purloined documents to determine what they had found. Confirming their suspicions and beyond, the documents revealed large scale infiltration of activist groups, and also showed that African Americans and Anti-War protesters were specifically targeted. In their review, the group found the files did not document actual crimes but protected activities of those infiltrated. Once this work was complete, they set out to release the documents to the media. Both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times returned the documents (which the FBI had confirmed as stolen, and therefore genuine), and declined to run them. Even sympathetic members of Congress would not move forward and challenge Hoover with the revelations. However, the files were also sent to Betty Mesger, a reporter at The Washington Post. She and Ben Bradlee, The Post’s iconic editor, bravely decided to publish. The film then moves into the post-publication period where the FBI attempted to identify the burglars and prosecute them for their crime; at one time 150 agents were assigned to the case. The disclosure of these documents had far reaching impact in the years following. Congress finally started taking notice of the government’s multiple surveillance programs, which were investigated by the special committee led by Senator Frank Church (D-ID). And four documents obtained in Media referencing COINTELPRO, a covert operation, led to the release of over 50,000 related documents under the Freedom of Information Act, revealing a 15 year campaign of spying on Americans dating back to the mid 1950s. While the success of the operation was never in doubt, Hamilton expertly ratchets up the suspense as the re-enactment of the break-in unspools. The sense of disappointment and dread is palpable as major papers decline to run with the story. This emotion makes 1971 extremely engaging and entertaining.
In a similar vein, Silenced (directed by James Spione) probes the present day government prosecution of individuals under the Espionage Act of 1917. Enacted to address treasonous acts and spying on the U.S. by external parties, the law is being used with increasing frequency against whistleblowers from within the government. Of the eleven who have been prosecuted under the act, eight have been since the start of the Obama administration. This film follows the personal stories of two of these eight. John Kiriakou is an ex-CIA officer and was the first to publicly reveal the use of waterboarding as a sanctioned government policy. Silenced follows his struggles as he attempts to defend himself against prosecution under the Act. Thomas Drake, a former official in the NSA who exposed the illegality of warrantless surveillance programs directed at US citizens, is also profiled. Finally, we are introduced to Jesslyn Radack, a former Justice Department attorney who challenged the G.W. Bush administration on the handling of John Walker Lindh, the American-born Taliban fighter. The film capably intertwines the three stories and effectively portrays the legal hurdles and private struggles each encounter in trying to clear their names. Artfully weaving first person interviews and archival footage, the stories have an immediate and present day feel. However, the staged recreations, while necessarily cinematic, are less effective and at times distracting. Regardless though, Silenced succeeds in portraying these three individuals as loyal committed Americans who believe in their country and are proud of their service in government. It is their solid sense of justice and belief in the strength of the Constitution that are under assault.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s “Around the Circuit” column.
For more on the Tribeca Film Festival, see Gary Kramer’s report here.