Reeling on the Right

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image by CBS / Photofest

The American Film Renaissance Film Festival bills itself as “the only film festival in the world devoted to celebrating America’s timeless traditional values like freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit.” In other words, AFR is a conservative film festival. During its first wine-and-cheese afterparty, one Washington lawyer said he hoped the festival “will get Hollywood to go back to the pro-American films that they used to have–like the ones John Wayne used to be in.”

He’s not alone. Some conservatives have long lamented that the right has focused on electoral politics to the exclusion of cultural endeavors. Think tanks, magazines, and activist groups can accomplish political tasks, they say, but culture makers shape our prejudices and ideals in a subtle though more profound way.

AFR is supposed to be the conservative film movement’s showcase. Unfortunately, the festival reveals that self-conscious conservatives are largely incapable of producing good films.

The top-billed film of the 2008 festival, held last fall in Washington, D.C., was An American Carol, a slapstick comedy about documentary filmmaker Michael Malone, who sets out to abolish the Fourth of July because he hates America. To the delight of the audience, JFK, General Patton, and George Washington make appearances to slap the Michael Moore look-alike and teach him that America is the greatest country ever. By the end, the liberal filmmaker realizes that being American means being pro-war (any war), and that’s OK.

Is An American Carol funny? In parts. There is some mildly amusing ethnic humor and a bravura film-within-a-film about Christian terrorists that involves homicidal nuns, hijacker priests, and an “Episcopalian suppository bomber.” But the rest is a series of tiresome gags hastily tied together. Adorable children curse their liberal relatives, Dennis Hopper blows away ACLU zombies, soldiers and sailors are hailed for their prowess in the sack. Of course, antiwar activists are smeared as pro-slavery Nazi appeasers. Bill O’Reilly makes a cringe-inducing cameo.

Far from lampooning the left, Carol insults conservatives by presuming that they are so simple as to be won over by fat jokes and flatulence. But AFR audience members, imagining themselves to be persecuted by Holly­wood, chuckle obediently at every cheap laugh.

The recent success of liberal documentaries by Al Gore, Michael Moore, and Errol Morris meant that the 2008 AFR was full of right-leaning imitators. U.N. Me takes an acid look at the United Nations, investigating the Oil for Food scandal, blunders in nonproliferation efforts, and tragic interventions in Africa. The filmmakers had a difficult time making such stomach-turning material entertaining.

Do As I Say, a documentary based on Peter Schweizer’s book about liberal hypocrisy, deftly skewers its subjects. We learn that Michael Moore owned Halliburton stock at the same time he told lecture audiences not to buy stocks at all. Noam Chomsky benefited from Pentagon contracts for his linguistics work, yet compares that institution to the Third Reich.

Blocking the Path to 9/11 is a documentary about the 2006 ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, which came under fire from Democrats for alleged inaccuracies. It aired with confusing last-minute edits, done at the behest of Bill and Hillary Clinton and ABC brass, to make Bubba’s administration look less culpable for failing to capture Osama bin Laden.

Blocking the Path to 9/11 lifts the curtain on Hollywood players and turns around powerful themes: the struggles of an artist pursuing his vision, the pettiness of bureaucrats, the triumph of partisan politics over truth. The film makes much of Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger’s buffoonish antics stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives–and then shows him accusing the miniseries’ director of manipulating history for partisan purposes. The nerve!

Herein is the fundamental problem with AFR and many of its films. As Blocking the Path to 9/11 moves into its final scenes, we are prepared for a stunning indictment of Washington and Hollywood. Instead we get a boring endorsement of the Republican Party. An assistant director on The Path to 9/11 turns to the screen and says, “I considered myself liberal on most issues. But, after this, I really have a new perspective on who gets it–who gets the nature of our enemies.” Members of AFR’s audience murmured little amens and nodded their heads.

At AFR, to hate Sandy Berger is to fall into the arms of Condi Rice. To despise Michael Moore is to cheer Bill O’Reilly. If Noam Chomsky is a hypocrite, then why criticize the Pentagon at all? AFR, instead of promoting American values, is trolling for votes. Its mission is high-toned and cultural, but its goals are transparently political.

Excerpted from the American Conservative (Oct. 20, 2008), a journal of “old conservative” ideas;

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