“He was that rarest of men. One who simply did what he believed was right. Nothing more, nothing less.” – Charlie Mechem
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission and the landing of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins set out on a dangerous mission and their accomplishment remains unparalleled to this day. Director David Fairhead’s new documentary simply titled Armstrong focuses on Commander Neil Armstrong. Through archival footage and interviews with the family members and peers who knew him best, the film takes us on a journey through the life of an extraordinary yet reserved man. Actor Harrison Ford narrates the film using Armstrong’s own words in the absence of the man himself who passed away in 2012.
As a young boy fascinated with airplanes, Armstrong sought out a pilot license before he even wanted to drive a car. Soaring above the earth was his natural state of being and his early training as a pilot led to his career as a fighter pilot in the Navy. A near death experience during the Korean War changed his life forever and set the course for his future career as an astronaut. The documentary explores his early days as a pilot, his education and transition into NASA, his home life, the tragic loss of his two year old daughter Karen, his work on Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Apollo 11 and most notably Armstrong’s life and career after that epic mission. Helping paint a portrait of this legendary man are his sons Mark and Rick Armstrong, his first wife Janet Armstrong, his sister June, plus various friends and peers as well as astronauts Joe Engle, David Scott, Frank Borman and Mike Collins, all legends in and of themselves.
The biggest takeaway from the documentary is the lost culture of mid-20th Century Cold War America. Throughout the film, Armstrong is presented as this man who believed in working hard, keeping your nose clean, not complaining and moving on from great tragedies. It was also an innovative time when the field of aeronautics and space exploration was new and rapidly changing. There was this intrinsic desire to accomplish big things for the advancement of mankind. It was a challenging era but also a ground-breaking one. Things have shifted so much and we’ve lost that desire to work hard, keep our emotions in check and to achieve goals for something bigger than ourselves.
Armstrong is an intimate portrait of an extraordinary individual and required viewing for anyone who appreciated Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Manbut craved more. (You can read my review of that film here.) The greatest value this documentary has to offer is the abundance of pristine archival footage, including home video, news clips, footage from NASA, some of which has never before been seen by the public. It plays with format presenting much of this footage in the center of the screen rather than stretching it out to fit the widescreen. A biographical documentary or even a biopic that has the blessing of the subject’s family can be a double-edged sword in terms of output. There’s a benefit of having so much access to people close to the subject but it will come with an inherent bias that will filter the story. Viewers can take the documentary with a grain of salt while still appreciating the fresh new material it has to offer. I for one appreciate what biographic documentaries can do that biopics cannot; rely on the real footage and real stories to tell the story that needs to be told.
Armstrong released in theaters and on VOD from Gravitas Ventures on Friday July 12th.
On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.
Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.
“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics. But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”
Director Josh Howard
Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.
I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.
The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.
On February 20th, 1939, over 20,000 Americans gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a Nazi rally. The organizers invited the press to cover the event and as a result we have footage of this little known event in US history. Director Marshall Curry in his 7 minute short documentary A Night at the Garden, offers a glimpse into this historic event. The film captures A Pledge of Allegiance, a speech as well as a protester who storms the stage only to be apprehended quickly by police detail.
Curry’s film offers a glimpse into an event that happened 80 years ago but is still eerily relevant today. This documentary is as timely as ever with the recent resurgence of white supremacy in the US. The pro-American, Anti-Semitic and anti-press rhetoric from 1939 is no different from rhetoric spoken in 2019. A Night at the Garden is just as much a window into the past and as it is a mirror reflecting the present.
A Night at the Garden is nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Visit the official website for more information.
Released on the 25th anniversary year of of the L.A. Riots, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings explores the dynamics of this turbulent time in US history. Ergüven, born in Turkey but raised in France, was deeply affected by the 2005 French Riots. In an interview at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where Kings had its world premiere, Ergüven said that as a Turkish woman in France she could relate to the feelings of being an outsider, a minority. In 2005 she could sense that “a big societal issue was coming to the surface.” This began her fascination with riots and the desire to make a film about them. Her research led her to the L.A. Riots of the early 1990s. Ergüven began working on a script for what was supposed to be her feature film debut. Finished in 2011, she wasn’t able to get it financed. A friend suggested she make another film in the interim which led Ergüven to make Mustang, released in 2015. That film served as a platform to get Ergüven’s script attention and funding. 11 years in the making, Kings was finally born.
Kings follows the story of Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry), a single woman and foster mom who takes the impossible task of raising eight children on her own. The oldest, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), is quiet and observant. He tries to make sense of the racial tensions in his neighborhood and develops an attraction to his fiesty and outspoken classmate Nicole (Rachel Hilson). When Millie brings home an abandoned teen, William (Kaalan Rashad Walker), the family dynamic shifts as William lashes out at authority and introduces the younger kids to shoplifting. He also develops a romance with Nicole that both angers and confuses Jesse. The family’s next door neighbor, Obie (Daniel Craig), is an eccentric writer who lives in relative seclusion. Obie and Millie frequently butt heads. When the Rodney King trail verdict angers the neighborhood setting off a riot, Obie, Millie and her family are embroiled in a fight for their lives.
Ergüven stays true to the era by weaving archival footage of news coverage throughout the film. There is a reenactment of the Latasha Harlins murder as well of footage of Soon Ja Du’s trial and eventual release. There is also plenty of footage of the Rodney King beatings and his trial. These are the two inciting incidents that set off the riots. The film really captures the paranoia, the tension and the desperation of a very volatile time. We sense the anger of the African-American community, the paranoia of the police force and the confusion of the young ones who are not capable of understanding where they fit in all of this. Something Ergüven does really well is she includes moments in which the characters experience joy. I was particularly taken with one scene in three of Millie’s foster kids are joined by other kids with the intent of burning down the local Burger King. An employee comes out and begs them to reconsider. Other employees come out and bring free milkshakes and fries for the kids to enjoy. Instead of burning down the establishment, the kids instead go elsewhere and throw their fire sticks over a bridge. This is not something a lot of movies do. Finding even a single moment of happiness during time of turmoil is the only thing that can keep us sane and help us move forward.
Where Kings excels in capturing the unrest of a particular time in history, it fails in character development. I didn’t get to know Millie, Obie or any of the other characters. The romance between Millie and Obie felt a bit forced to me. Two people who hate each other yet come together during a difficult time is a storyline that could work but doesn’t here. There was also a bizarre sex/dream sequence that felt out of place, unnecessary and briefly took me out of the movie. I wanted to know why Millie had all these foster kids and why Obie was so eccentric. And I wanted to know more about the trio of teenagers William, Nicole and Jesse. The actors all delivered fine performances but they couldn’t overcome what was lacking in the story. It felt like the riots overshadowed any potential this film had to be a good character study.
Kings is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download and will release on demand 7/31.
Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health, against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.
Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.
Debs Red Special Band in Front of Train 1908
Socialist Party campaign poster 1904
What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:
“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”
As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.