Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: Davis Guggenheim's Barack Obama documentary The Road We've Traveled (2012) alternates between patronizing simplicity and creepy propaganda.

Maybe I'm just too cynical.  But even while I agree with about 90% of the content of this 17-minute documentary, I can't help but be creeped out by the context.  With Tom Hanks's narration, generically swelling music, and various stills of Barack Obama looking 'presidential' while various Americans smile or cheer approvingly, this is the kind of thing that bugs me on a number of levels.  First of all, I cannot help but be repulsed by the idea that a president ordering a military execution, even one on Osama Bin Laden, is seen as a crowning example of 'leadership'. Putting aside the issue of how much Obama's foreign policy has resembled Dick Cheney on steroids (Obama doesn't torture, but he will hold you in indefinite detention and/or order your due process-free execution while randomly bombing the crap out of civilians with unmanned drones), there is something deeply wrong with a nation that puts the ability to order the killing of another person, even a sworn enemy under just cause, as paramount example of 'leadership'.  Aaron Sorkin of course rebutted the idea in both several episodes of The West Wing and during a key first-act juncture in The American President, where Michael Douglas explains in detail why ordering military action that will take human lives is perhaps 'the least presidential thing I do'.  No, President Barack Obama never donned a flight suit and gave a presidential address from an aircraft carrier, but the idea that the (perhaps lawful/justified) killing of another person should be among the crowning accomplishments of any person, let alone a leader, is distasteful.  It was distasteful when Bush played cowboy while other people's sons and daughters bled out in the Middle East, and its only a little less distasteful when Obama claims this single military action as a shining example of 'leadership'.

Aside from that personal issue, the documentary frankly represents a testament to the dumbing-down of our political culture.  This is not a straight-faced, fact-driven information piece designed to explain in any detail the various accomplishments (quite large in number, frankly) of Barack Obama's first term.  No, this would-be viral video is clearly intended to make we voters warm and fuzzy about the current Commander-In-Chief.  As such, there is little context, little insight, and no real worth as a factual document of the various achievements and what it took to make them happen.  The majority of the film basically sets up a situation where bad stuff was happening and was going to get worse, unless President Barack Obama (and he alone) just stood up and 'did something'.  This is problematic in two ways.  One, it sells the idea, one that the GOP has been trying to promote, that Obama is sees himself as some kind of all-powerful unitary king with the power to do what he pleases with the flick of a pen.  Second of all, by framing the situation as 'but then Barack Obama decided to take action and there was much rejoicing', it lessens the impressiveness of what he actually did accomplish (IE - months of wrangling and negotiating with an openly hostile Congress) for the various legislative achievements.  It's patronizing in its simplicity and borders on insulting.  The film is technically targeting voters who aren't political wonks, and it's not targeting hardcore conservatives/Tea Partiers who wouldn't vote for Obama if he were running unopposed.  But it's targeting blue-collar (probably Caucasian) voters from rural or industrial-skewing states, people who one might think can handle an average episode of Frontline without being confused.  There is a sense throughout the 18-minute piece that David Guggenheim (whose An Inconvenient Truth was certainly more 'info' than 'tainment') feels that swing voters and/or moderates can't handle a complex political narrative and/or would rather 'feel good about Barack Obama' rather than come out with concrete factual reasons why he deserves their vote in 2012.

All of this combines to create a film that is less than informative and not particularly entertaining on its face.  The brief snippets from Bill Clinton (now there was a man who could explain policy at length in an entertaining and informative fashion) and Elizabeth Warren hint at a film that could have put more emphasis on dry political  history rather than a patently generic 'Barack Obama sure is swell and brave' propaganda piece that we got.  It's disheartened that this is what the Obama campaign thinks will persuade undecided voters, as opposed to nuanced explanations of what accomplishments were achieved and how they came about.  But it's even more disheartening to realize that they may be right.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Grade: C-


lily said...

the important thing is that this will work. it's a campaign, he has to get re-elected and if this helps then it's a good thing. and i really, truly think you're in the minority on the killing of bin laden not being a shining achievement of his first term. of course he's going to tout that, and he should.

Adam said...

It's clearly a campaign video, and within that context it's very much par for the course. Asides from much being production value. Yes, it lacks nuance and glosses over untidy facts (inconvenient truths if you will) but when was the last time you saw a campaign ad or video about a candidates own record that didn't.

ACOD said...

Cheers for calling it like you see it. I rolled my eyes at this as well. I guess the dose of Tom Hanks for Earnestness, wasn't enough for you.
I'm dreading the rest of the year. Politics are so predictable and stale. I can't stomach the 24/7 grandstanding for the next 9 months. The rhetoric is silly and trite. If Santorum wins the nomination, I completely understand the concern, but do the prospects of a Romney administration truly concern anyone?
It will be a case study clinic on spin to watch this guy get transformed from a Mormon from Michigan that became the Governor of Massachusetts, to a bible thumping, slave to big business that wants to reinstate the draft to attack Iran and place all homosexuals in concentration camps the moment he wins the nomination. Just watch.
Obama is fine as well, we should all take this cycle off, ignore our past allegiances and just observe the circus clinically. It is a good litmus test year to expose the chicken littles, exaggerators and those with hidden agendas. The perspective gained may be invaluable for future elections (and primaries) where something is actually at stake.
I'm with George Carlin.


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