Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 30, 2020 7:08 am 
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Politics in action in a riveting new documentary

This fascinating, exciting documentary focuses on one of the American Legion's longtime annual summer events for high school juniors (mostly 17, but 16 to 18), 1200 of them at the Texas state capitol. This is a training ground of future leaders. Alumni the film mentions include Samuel Alito, Cory Booker, Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton. It's artificial - two invented competing parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists, electing officials and then a governor from one of the two parties, legislating on invented issues - but also realistic. It provides some stunning lessons in practical politics, for them and for us. The filmmakers follow four boys. Two become their separate party's managers and become embroiled in some cutthroat political maneuvers. Two run for governor, both unsuccessfully, but one is the runner-up. There are also boy journalists covering events (and social media playing a big role at some points), and ancillary events like a talent show.

The top position is governor, and the winner of this post has parents who emigrated from Italy. Of the two elected early on as the party managers, one Ben Feinstein, is handicapped, having a withered arm and two artificial legs due to childhood meningitis. He is a fierce and articulate party infighter, a politics junkie and a conservative. The other, tall, skinny Rene Otero, is black and hispanic, originally from Chicago, and a gifted public speaker who knows how to galvanize an audience. The gov candidate who washed out, Rob, has an Irish last name and looks like young Matt Dillon. He's confident, good-looking, and a charmer, and might have done well had he planned his campaign better. Each of them has private time for the camera, and Rob admits his pro-life stand (perhaps his pro-gun one as well) was adopted to appeal to the predominantly conservative group. He also takes a somewhat jokey, collegiate humor tone in his candidate speech that he later admits was wrong: he thought that was what the boys wanted, he realized they wanted serious. The other governor finalist, perhaps the most memorable of the four, is Steven Garza, the son of poor Mexican immigrants, whose mother was illegal for a while.

Cynically we may assume people go into politics to become famous or assume power and wealth, and they do. We may also assume that high schoolers chosen by American Legionnaires in Texas would be pro-gun and anti-abortion. But this is not true of Steven Garza, and it turns out he led an anti-gun march a while back. But he too like Ben has always cared about politics, and his appeal to the thirty he has to get to sign to get on the ballot is that he wants to know what they want, and serve their needs and wishes. Whether this shows the makings of a dedicated public servant or a chameleon ready, like Rob, to shift stands to get elected may not be wholly certain. But his dedication impresses many, and when he loses, he is vervently thanked and congratulated by supporters. When he calls his mother weeping he says it's not because he lost, but because of those faithful supporters, and he is proud.

As he must be. And we can wonder how conservative these thousand mostly white boys are if the governor and runner up are sons of immigrants, one hispanic, and if the two party managers elected were also minorities.

What may disturb viewers is how some incidents get manipulated by boy-politicians, especially in a public conflict between the two party managers that may swing the gubernatorial party vote when Rene steps in to block the winning candidate from taking questions from the assembled boys as part of his final speech, and Ben objects. Was it racist earlier that there was a move within his party to impeach Rene? But when it comes to a vote finally few dare to vote for his ouster after all.

We see how hard Rene is willing to fight to hold onto his hard won position, and how tough Ben is in his realpolitik. We see Rob frankly say in politics you have to lie sometimes to get elected. And we wonder if Steven isn't being cagey about his real progressive politics so he can get elected by a more conservative group. It's all American politics in action.

This film has aroused great interest and high praise, yet its Metascore is only 73, mainly it appears because of a bad review in Hollywood Reporter by John DeFore. His main criticism should be considered: that the few boys chosen for the doc may be interesting, but they are too few to be considered representative of the group or the event. A few of the rank and file - the boys who aren't very active - are heard from but more personalities would have provided a richer mix. But this is a tough event to cover in an under two-hour film. Maybe Frederick Wiseman might have provided more detail. But Moss and McBaine provide exciting action in compact form, and the admiration is warranted.

Boys State, 109 mins, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, where it won the Grand Prize for Documentary; five other festivals including New Directors/New Films of Film at Lincoln Center and MoMA, where it was screened for this review (before the press screenings were cancelled due to the pandemic), and San Francisco, which has announced it too will make it the opening night film. Distribution rights belong to Apple and A24. Releases July 31, 2020.

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