Truth, Justice and Cinema Verite: How Observational Documentaries Have Helped Shape the Political Culture

Never meet your heroes. That’s one of the pillars of cultural decorum I’ve learned to follow over the years, and as technology and social media blur the boundaries of public and private life, it’s become a more difficult mantra to follow. Can I ever watch a James Woods movie the same way after reading through his verified Twitter feed? Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the daily reports of hideous allegations that have been leveled against Senators, Senate hopefuls, Actors, Writers, Directors, Producers, Talk Show Hosts, CEOs, the President and anyone who apparently has ever held any position of authority with someone they could try and take advantage of near them, who would possibly want to know anything about anyone when you know it’s only a matter of time before the skeletons in their closet come into the light? Given a long enough timeline, it seems like my drunk cousin who swears everyone is a jerk will be proven right. But when did the border breakdown and the private lives of public figures became common knowledge? There was a period of time when even the press wouldn’t report a story to preserve the image of a prominent figure, and maintain their access for future engagements. When did everyone fall under the gaze of Big Brother?

James Woods Twitter
See what I mean…

Two political documentaries, Primary by Robert Drew and Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, serve well as perfect examples of the power of Cinema Verite in the shaping of public opinion concerning a candidate, and how access is the most valuable commodity in the world of political theater. These films represent the beginning of the campaign documentary and it’s inevitable progression into a chronicling of degradation as political figures becomes more comfortable with being in front of a camera and willingly narrate the machinations of a lie without concern for any repercussions.

In the New York Times article, Once Upon a Time in Wisconsin, Bob Greene expounds on the progression of campaign coverage from the 1960s, when Primary debuted, to today, how it has gone from formal press conferences and paid local telecasts to a full blown media circus.

“Today the primary process itself has evolved into a perpetual moving picture,” Greene writes, “it’s not as if the press comes to a state to record a political event, it’s that the manic movie travels from state to state, like a tornado with a timetable, descending on waiting political actors.” (Greene, 2004)

Primary Documentary
Primary covering the Kennedy Campaign

Primary was the first political documentary of its kind, covering the 1960 Democratic primary race in Wisconsin between Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota Senator, and John F. Kennedy, some guy from Massachusetts, and it established a template that is still being employed today. Identify a competitive race with starkly contrasting candidates and embed a small, mobile crew that can disappear into the background of the campaign with it. Follow the excitement of the race as the candidates pass through crowds, give rousing speeches and press the flesh with the voters, but balance that with intimate moments where they aren’t visibly conscious of the camera being present, and the viewer can get a chance to see the personal side of these enormous personalities.

On his motivation behind the documentary, Drew said:

‘What I found out was that real life never got out of the film, never came through the television set. If we could do that we could have a whole new basis for a whole new journalism…It would be a theater without actors; it would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things, and see a kind of truth, that can only be gotten from personal experience.’ (Saunders, 2007)

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin
What a Weiner…

Weiner, the 2016 documentary, was conceived in the spirit of being a modern day fairy tale. It was to chronicle the triumphant return of a once heralded politician who had been anointed by the former King and Queen of the Democratic party and was being groomed for leadership but fell victim to temptation. Like the story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, Anthony Weiner was going to return to public office with a victory in a mayoral race to become the face of the world’s most celebrated city. With access only a former staffer can attain, this documentary was going to be the most telling story of perseverance and the indomitable spirit of the American Man the world had ever seen. Unfortunately, it ended up being the most well produced TMZ video of all time.

One of the most powerful techniques employed by these films to shape our perception of these candidates is in the framing of their interactions with the public.

In Primary, this was present with the scenes of Humphrey, framed from the waist down, prowling the pavement in his worn leather shoes looking for potential voters to introduce himself to. He’s hunting a vote like a man on a deserted island trying to crack a coconut with his fist. People don’t know who he is, despite being a Senator from the Midwest. There is no rush to greet him and people stroll by as though he was a panhandler begging for change. A later scene shows him speaking at a rather sedated gathering of farmers in a room where jokes fall flatter than a corn field and he barely needs to raise his voice to be heard by everyone in the auditorium.

These scenes bookend a glimpse of the Kennedy campaign we get as the camera hovers over the Senator’s shoulder as he passes through an enthusiastic crowd like the Beatles entering Shea Stadium.

Even though he hasn’t been elected yet, this is treatment reserved for royalty, and we are experiencing it firsthand. They are looking at us as we sit on stage, but everyone is looking up at JFK when he approaches the microphone to speak. And o’ does he speak.

In contrast, the decline of the Weiner campaign is brought on not by a lack of recognition or enthusiasm, but because of the presence of Anthony Weiner. As a Congressman, Weiner developed a reputation for being a fighter. His brash tactics earned him a cult following as the people’s representative. But soon it became apparent that Anthony Weiner is not fighting for the people, but because Anthony Weiner likes to fight.

Captured from many angles, Weiner takes a fateful day-trip to Brooklyn where he strolls with an entourage of reporters down the street, greeting potential voters before stopping into a Jewish bakery to grab a snack. There, just before walking out the door, Weiner decides to engage in an argument with a random man over who has the right to judge whom. This is the perfect example of the trappings of public engagement that his campaign suffered from as the video of this encounter went viral. We witness part of this exchange from the sidewalk where passersby wonder, just as we do, why he didn’t just ignore the heckler? It’s because Weiner applies the same bombastic aggression that made him a public sensation during his congressional career to every public encounter.

At a point in the film, Weiner is shown alone in a studio, arguing with a cable news pundit over satellite. There is no one there with him, and it looks to us like he’s talking to himself. This is Weiner. A man alone, abandoned by all who had supported him because of himself and his need to feel vindicated at all costs. Self control has resigned in defeat.

Weiner dissatisfies on a number of points, and scores brilliantly on one. The ‘fly on the wall’ approach is steadfastly passive; no one is interviewed, there is no commentary, we get nothing of the candidate’s life outside politics,” Rand Richards Cooper writes of Weiner. “It’s not an approach geared to delivering insight either into Weiner’s past, his need to transgress, the inner workings of his marriage, or any of a number of topics one might reasonably expect a documentary to address.” (Richards Cooper, 2016)

While Richards Cooper’s dissection of Weiner’s observational style might suggest frustration with the film’s passive approach, it is this lack of intervention that helps shape the audience’s relationship with Anthony Weiner. At first we are willing to forgive his past. We know the story and we don’t need to bring it up. Then, as the momentum of the campaign builds, the rug is pulled out from under us, like it is for the senior staff members of the campaign, and there is no safety net of a confessional booth for the candidate to make his case. He has to explain himself to us in the same way he has to ask for the forgiveness and support from his family and staff members. And if he fails to do so, well…

Remorse is not a familiar emotion for Anthony Weiner, and I don’t believe it’s one we ever see him experience. We see regret. But that is just regret for getting caught again. Even during the self-effacing sit down interview portions, you can feel Weiner’s passive aggressive attitude consume the screen. When senior members of the campaign are voicing their grievances with his behavior, Weiner is sitting on a couch, barefoot, with his feet up, nodding their concerns away. He’s dismissive of their opinions because there is no way to defuse the situation into being someone else’s fault, and he still needs something out of these people, so rather than resort to his base impulse of debate, he opts for pacification.

smug weiner
Meet the Weiners

The fact that the scene ends with the Communications Director of the Campaign being told how to smile on her way out of the building is indicative of the disfunction on display here. I would call it a last ditch effort to preserve the optics of normalcy, but watching Weiner use his child as a prop on election day assumed that role and proves to be especially unnerving because of the scandals that follow once the credits roll, the one where Weiner again sends a suggestive photo of himself to another woman, but this time it’s a picture taken while his child is sleeping by his side.

Not surprising to anyone, Anthony Weiner’s behavior eventually degenerated to a level which saw him messaging an underage girl sexually suggestive images and going to jail.

Bill Nichols writes of the uncomfortable position observational documentaries like Weiner can place audiences in with the ‘at the keyhole’ approach. It’s as though we’re watching the subject we’re intrinsically developing a connection with stumble repeatedly but are unable to lend a hand, so we feel like voyeurs feeding our curiosity and perhaps a deep seated sense of schadenfreude with the entertainment the obstacles provide us.

‘Why are you letting us film this?’ It’s a question asked from outside the frame as the filmmakers break the observational barrier and ask Anthony Weiner why he was letting them capture the scandals that are plaguing his candidacy.

This is the dilemma of documentary film, and something that we always have to wonder about when the narrative ventures into controversial territory, especially when dealing with such powerful figures as political officials.

‘At the heart of Primary’s weakness is compromising truth: Drew wanted to court the favor of high-profile subjects, and to do this in 1960 he had to remain innocuous in his coverage for fear of being ostracised from a clique that was defending national interests. There are few revelations in Primary, a film whose apparent aim was to capture the drama inherent in real life situations and to ‘show what really goes on’; rather, its producer, in wishing to avoid Griersonian ‘propaganda’ and slant, makes a trade-off that renders his film impotent in various artistic respects.’ (Saunders, 2007)

We know the purpose of Primary for the Kennedy campaign. Humanize the Prince of Camelot. Let everyone take part in the excitement. Enjoy the ride to a new day in America. But what about the trainwreck of Weiner? Are the same narcissistic tendencies that fuel his compulsions to create scandals also what make him continue to allow a camera crew to document it? Is it his ego that allows him to believe he can pull up before crashing into the mountainside, or is this a sickness that the filmmakers are sensationalizing for the pure merriment of watching an arrogant man fail?

Perhaps it’s this hubris that provides a release for the audience’s guilt at witnessing the decline of Anthony Weiner, because at the heart of Anthony Weiner’s worse character flaw is his ability to inspire trust in those that believe in him and believe they need him. It’s what makes it so painful when his manipulations are revealed.

weiner down
Sunk by another scandal…

It can be argued that Huma, Anthony Weiner’s wife at the time of filming, is the more politically powerful member of the couple, but Weiner doesn’t seem to identify that, or her growing exhaustion with him. He tries to coax her into campaigning for him, not realizing that he is damaged goods that can hurt her. It’s his inability to empathize that makes him feel like a fraud when he’s giving his passionate speeches about policies that will benefit the middle class. How does someone who struggles to identify the pain he’s causing his spouse understand the suffering of the society at large?

How do you compare Kennedy’s arrival at a crowded auditorium full of adoring fans with that of Weiner sneaking into a McDonald’s to use a backdoor to the stage to give his post-defeat address so he can avoid the newly minted Adult Movie Star his habits helped create and know they both held positions of authority in the same government? You look at it the same way you view photos of crowds at baseball games, or supermarkets, or universities over the years, marking the delineation from suits to sweatpants. We’ve accepted a steady progression towards apathy in the public theater that has degraded the norms of social interactions.

Politics is not casual fare, there are definite winners and losers and oftentimes we find that the deciding factor separating the two comes at the price of humiliation for the latter. This is a part of what we witness with observational political documentaries. We see the shaping of one man as old and boring while the other has inspired the masses. We see a man unhinged. We see the intimacy of a room full of senior staffers keeping score as the votes from the various counties begin to pour in. We see a man who we shouldn’t trust run from a future porn star as if he could ditch his past by using the side door. We see scandals unreported that history will reveal when the coast is clear. We see a man reach the bottom. We see an icon emerge. We don’t feel the wrong candidate won because we have 90 minutes of evidence supporting the outcome.

Primary voting day
Add it up

Whilst the contemporaneous cinema verite exponents in France were avowing their artistic lineage by paying tribute Vertov’s strident Kino-Pravda, Drew sought not to follow this self-reflexive tradition but to focus on the potential of discreetly obtained footage; if filmic subjects and situations were chosen judiciously, thought Drew, then unstaged life in an America becoming accustomed to the camera’s presence and function might yield up its own mode of truth. (Saunders, 2007)

There is a bit of irony in the fact that the same technology that has helped create a documentary like Weiner, which closely resembles the idealized version of direct cinema Drew imagined in 1960, is the same technology that drives the narrative of oversharing that collapsed the Weiner campaign.

Primary is an important film in the documentary canon, but it is not an especially good one. It stands today as a curate’s egg that might well have been lost to posterity were it not for its pioneering but ultimately ineffective grasping at an alternative to didactic factual programming. The technology at Drew’s disposal was not yet refined enough to permit comprehensive, synchronised-sound recording; the film is a brave but stultifying period piece, not the kind of engagingly dramatic reportage Drew originally envisaged. (Saunders, 2007)

citizen kane
Orson was 25 when he made this…

The modern digital era, filtered through the perspective of a 1960s filmmaker, would be the equivalent of imagining supermarkets on the moon. The average American in 2017 is walking around with more advanced movie making technology in their pocket than Orson Welles had when he made Citizen Kane. And with most people having the ability to instantly broadcast, or ‘Go Live’, to audiences everywhere on the planet, we’ve entered a world Robert Drew could only dream of in 1960, when Time-Life Inc. supported his efforts to develop more mobile, lightweight film equipment that could be patched to a tape recorder in an effort to introduce a new style of unscripted documentary known as Cinema Verite to American television audiences. (Watson, 1989)

Following the success of Primary, Robert Drew and John F. Kennedy discussed the value of documentation this new style of filmmaking could provide. Kennedy viewed the ability of being able to record what happens as it happens as being a profound historical tool. (Watson, 1989) But an argument could also be made that the first television candidate also saw the inherent advantages a handsome, young, well-spoken politician could garner by embracing this technology and finding a way to bring his smile into the living rooms of millions of American, just as Anthony Weiner thought it would be the first step towards redemption in the public’s eye.

If the doors to unlimited access of a political candidate were first opened with Kennedy in Primary, and the boundaries of ethics were challenged in Weiner, it should come as no surprise that we now have the first Twitter President who has mixed the influence of direct interaction JFK identified with the confrontational rhetoric voters found inspiring in Weiner to win office. But has this open access and intimacy, the real speak and candid behavior that Cinema Verite strived to capture, brought us any closer to actual truth?

Talk to me when Mueller’s Special Investigation is over and I’ll let you know.

Trump v. Biden
When 70 year old men pretend to fight…
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press, 2010.
Greene, Bob. “Once upon a Time in Wisconsin.” New York Times, vol. 153, no. 52762, 17 Feb. 2004, p. A23. EBSCOhost,
Richards Cooper, Rand. “Thriftless Ambition.” Commonweal, vol. 143, no. 12, 08 July 2016, pp. 30-31. EBSCOhost,
“Cinéma Vérité.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition, Mar. 2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=a9h&AN=39052381&site=ehost-live.
Saunders, Dave. Direct cinema: observational documentary and the politics of the sixties. Wallflower Press, 2007.
Watson, M. A. “Adventures in Reporting: John Kennedy and the Cinema Verité Television Documentaries of Drew Associates.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. 19 no. 2, 1989, pp. 26-43. Project MUSE,



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