It's not often that political documentaries are both informative and entertaining. It's even less often that three such documentaries appear on DVD at the same time. …So Goes The Nation makes the mechanics of presidential campaigns – in their last days – fascinating; Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing looks at how a simple statement of opinion blossomed into a politically charged mess, and The U.S. vs. John Lennon tackles the subject of the Nixon administrations efforts to rid themselves of one of the most influential activists to emerge from the world of entertainment…
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing
It all began with a single sentence, "We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." Twelve words that expressed a specific sentiment; twelve words delivered, off the cuff, during a concert in London as a bit of comedy to further an already solid connection with the audience.
Within days, thanks to one of the most McCarthyesque campaigns by what can only be described as the closed-minded far right [politically speaking], the Dixie Chicks saw their number one single drop off the country charts and people were burning and crushing their DVDs with an amazing ferocity – and they hadn't even said they were "more popular than Jesus!"
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing chronicles the lives of the Chicks from just before that event, right through to the success of their newest album – and how they dealt with the pure idiocy of statements to the effect of "I'm all for free speech – just not in foreign countries or in public" – and being castigated online by people could safely hide behind pseudonyms as they spewed their hated and made their death threats.
It is a film of bravery and tenacity; of a trio of women who became unlikely advocates of free speech by putting into words what a lot of other, less brave people were thinking. It's a film about the feeling of family that exists with the Dixie Chicks, the members of their band, their management, and their individual families But most of all, it's a film about how a group of tough, smart, perceptive people stood together in the face of fascist behavior masquerading as patriotism – and prevailed!
Technically, there's nothing remarkable about Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing – it's a well-made documentary with the obligatory talking heads, concert footage, and footage of demonstrators advocating that they be deported [to where? Deportation only works if they're from another country!], or be strapped to a bomb and dropped on Baghdad [see: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove].
The reason the film is amazing is, well, the people. When the women are pitched the idea of doing a song called "Undivided" – a paean to uniting the country, Natalie Maines asks if that means she would have to apologize. When told that, in the context of the song, yes, she outright refuses. That may the moment that Not Ready To Make Nice began to happen. We follow the Chicks through discussions on what to do, when to do it, how to do it. We're there as Emily Robison gives birth to twins.
By making Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing a film that deals with the people, it makes their stance on the war – and, not coincidentally President Bush – more powerful and more heartfelt. The dignity with which they comport themselves during this period of their lives is as much a blow against the unthinking, un-American behavior of those who censured them. The result is a film that has something to say and presents a lot of seriously kickass music.
…So Goes The Nation
In the last few months and weeks before the 2004 election, both the Democratic and Republican parties ramped up efforts to get their candidates into the White House. You might remember the various approaches that were taken: Bush's declaration that you might not agree with him but you would always know where he stood, and the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry; Kerry's efforts to stay on message and avoid retaliating with attack ads.
…So Goes The Nation focuses on the state of Ohio, which wound up holding the balance of power in the election. It tales a closer look at all the tactics used by each party and the manner in which each party mobilized [or not] their volunteers. We get to hear both campaigns dissected by both sides. When Democratic strategists identify their mistakes – and when Republican strategists identify their mistakes – it's a very sobering thing, though as sobering as when they each identify their opponents' strengths and flaws.
When seen in the space of a ninety-minute documentary, the evolution [and devolution] of the campaigns becomes so much clearer. Remember "Kerry flip-flops"? Remember Kerry focusing on jobs, while Bush focused on protecting America from terrorists? Here's a film that literally explains how these things happened. …So Goes The Nation is, literally, a primer on how to run successful [and unsuccessful] political campaigns.
If you wonder how the heck someone won an election, when it seems that everyone was fed up with him, …So Goes The Nation may go a long way to explaining just exactly what happened. This is a scary, scary movie.
The only feature is an audio commentary with co-directors/co-producers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo. As commentaries go, this is a gem – Stern and Del Deo get into fascinating details from the get-go when they explain how they were able to interview the four top strategists from each party.
…So Goes The Nation – Grade: A
Final Grade: A
The U.S. vs. John Lennon
John Lennon was always an outspoken kinda guy but when he left The Beatles, he became known for more than just his music and general contrariness. Among the things John did were: voice strong opinions against the Nixon administration and the Viet Nam war; offer support to radicals like Angela Davis; write songs like Give Peace a Chance and Imagine – which were taken by the Nixon administration as anti-Nixon anthems; embark on a world tour of lie-ins in which he and his wife, Yoko Ono Lennon spent days in bed in several cities, giving interviews and holding impromptu sing-alongs in the cause of world peace, and step up on behalf of what would become the feminist movement with his song Woman Is The Nigger of the World.
Because Lennon was so insanely popular, the Nixon administration assumed that his actions represented a threat to them and he became a target for investigation by the FBI. Because of a marijuana conviction, the government instigated an order of deportment for him. The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a documentary that looks at how the government of the most powerful nation in the world tried to bully a lone – though highly influential – musician and failed miserably.
The film looks at Lennon's entire life, but focuses on the period following his departure from The Beatles, when he became loudly vocal on any number of touchy topics [at least, touchy in the view of the American government]. Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld examine the acts and methods of the government in their efforts to remove Lennon from the public eye as well as Lennon's message and methods.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a remarkably thorough piece of work. There are many clips of relevant stage performances and the Lennons' tour of lie-ins [one cool scene features Tom Smothers jamming with Lennon as the roomful of friends and media sing along]. Interviews are culled from a truly broad spectrum of people.
The Nixon administration is represented by John Dean and G. Gordon Liddy; prominent Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Angela Davis give their perspective. Radical journalists like Tariq Ali and mainstream journalists like Walter Cronkite and Carl Bernstein add their insights. Politicians from both sides of the ideological fence chime in, including: Mario Cuomo and George McGovern. Pundits like Gore Vidal and activists like Viet Nam veteran Ron Kovic add their thoughts. The result is a fascinating and entertaining – not to mention provocative – film.
Features include: fifty-four minutes of additional footage; the theatrical trailer, and the complete thirteen-page interview Lennon gave Tariq Ali and Robert Blackburn of the leftist magazine, Red Mole.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon: A
Final Grade: B+