We're living through a really nasty and intense presidential election that might be causing you to never want to learn another thing concerning politics. Don't give in to despair though! Instead, educate and entertain yourself without leaving the couch, by watching any of these documentaries below which study the people and issues that could make you a more informed voter. NOTE: Any despair arising from an increase in knowledge is not the responsibility of Gothamist, LLC.
Best of Enemies
This 2015 doc will take you back to the 1968 election year, when the Republican nominee Richard Nixon was up against Democrat nominee Hubert Humphrey. That year also featured a strong third party candidate: former Alabama Governor George Wallace, an advocate for racial segregation in public schools who pulled a lot of support in the Deep South. The documentary focuses on Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., who took the race to television through a series of ten debates, all moderated by Howard K. Smith during ABC News' coverage of the RNC and DNC, held in Miami and Chicago, respectively.
It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the fierce debates that ensued between the two men who agreed on absolutely nothing. From their makeshift studios set up at the conventions, they produced what unexpectedly became must-see-TV that summer. But get ready for some pretty ugly moments that surface during their sparring—like when Buckley says to Vidal, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.” — Jen Carlson
Before he was a sitting senator, before he was America's most inspirational mayor, Corey Booker was just a city councilman trying to take on a Newark political establishment that has no interest in giving up power. Marshall Curry's Street Fight follows Booker's first (failed) campaign to be Newark's mayor in 2002, while also exploring Newark itself, and the city's old-school establishment that saw Booker as a carpetbagging outsider compared to native son and incumbent mayor Sharpe James. As nasty as Clinton vs. Trump has seemed, the film shows there's nothing quite like a veteran, local political heavyweight marshaling his forces and using strongman tactics to try to put an end to a legitimate challenger.
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Relying on a combination of interviews with people who were involved in 4chan and the hacking/trolling collective that became known as Anonymous, as well as journalists and experts on hacking, We Are Legion delves into the very recent history of the image board that was known for some of the web's most infamous memes and its fight with the Church of Scientology. The documentary gives a bit too much of a pass to some of the former 4chan and Anonymous members it talks to, who build up their status as living legends as opposed to effective Internet assholes.
It also fails to critically look at the 4chan attitude of "no one should ever be able to take offense to anything" that eventually curdled into Gamergate, more lawless -chan offshoots, and the alt-right's online presence as a safe space for Trumpism and white nationalism. But until we get a documentary about 8chan and Gamergate, We Are Legion will be some of the best insight into the troll-heavy Internet we currently all slog through.
120 Days: Undocumented In America
Immigration, particularly undocumented immigrants, is one of the driving issues of the 2016 campaign. Instead of trying to grapple with the debate by letting talking heads give their views, director Ted Roach smartly just follows Miguel Cortes, an undocumented immigrant who grapples with what to do when a court order gives him 120 days to voluntarily deport himself from America. Already an intimate look at a family making a life-changing decision, 120 Days doesn't do anything mawkish or sentimental to try to drive home the importance of what it's looking at. The only stylistic aspect is the occasional reminder of what day of the remaining 120 the film is up to, with a time stamp showing the time of day down to the second.
The War Room
In addition to being an excellent filmmaker, D.A. Pennebaker must have also had a vision of the future come to him when he decided to make a movie about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign from New Hampshire all the way to the White House. How else to explain the way he got an intimate and close-up look of political figures like James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and the Clinton family, who are still dominating our lives 25 years later?
The War Room uses a cinema verite style to focus mostly on Stephanopoulos and Carville as they work behind the scenes of the campaign, giving you an unfiltered look at arguments over ad scripts and minutiae like whether to flood the DNC with homemade "Clinton" signs. The film also really drives home how little things have changed when James Carville motivates a group of campaign staffers with a speech about how Clinton winning the White House will put a stop to Roger Ailes's dirty tricks once and for all. How did that one work out again?
Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie
Before there was Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, Glenn Beck or Breitbart, the country's purest distillation of right wing populist rage was WWOR's Morton Downey, Jr. Show, in which Morton Downey, Jr. shouted down and degraded liberals and other undesirables in front of a screaming studio audience. Through a combination of interviews with staff and friends, archival footage of the show, other Downey appearances and a small bit of animation Évocateur tracks the meteoric rise and comparably fast fall of "Mort The Mouth," who traded dreams of being a famous singer like his father for becoming the loud, chain smoking host of a show that represented the country's conservative id in the late Reagan era.
The movie draws a straight line from Downey to the Tea Party, stopping halfway through to get some footage of a convention where Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann appeared, but was made a little too early to connect Downey to his true heirs at Breitbart Media. Although in Downey's defense, Évocateur has footage of an episode where he huffs and puffs at a bunch of skinheads, which shows you how dark our politics have become in an era when a right-wing presidential candidate has shrugged his shoulders at white nationalism.
Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, upon finding out she's having a baby daughter, sets out to study the role that the media plays in the oppression of women. Miss Representation starts with an examination of highly sexualized images of women in broadcast TV and movies, and how it affects the self-image of women and young girls. From there, Siebel Newsom connects the hyper-sexualization of women to the way the news media and society helps to diminish women in the realm of politics, and how all of it flows down from a consolidated media industry that sees objectification of women as the best way to get ratings from 18-to-34 year old men. Diane Fienstein, Nancy Pelosi, Jane Fonda, and Condoleezza Rice all show up in interviews, along with authors and media critics, who go over a litany of issues that will sound really familiar to anyone who's been even half-awake during this election.
The Dean Scream: What Really Happened
It's ridiculous to think that Howard Dean letting loose with kind of a loud, strange scream after failing to win the 2004 Iowa caucus is what sunk his 2004 campaign, but that's what the prevailing narrative was back then. The 538 team talks with Dean advisers, some staffers from rival campaigns, and even Dean himself to do a deep dive into what led up to the moment of the most famous scream in American politics and how it fit into a larger narrative that was being constructed around Howard Dean by the establishment he was running against.