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Lefty Filmmakers Grapple with Left-Wing Backlash

by Anthony Kaufman
June 12, 2013 1:28 PM
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The left-wing sectarian debates fuming over Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," well-assembled and dissected by Andrew O'Hehir at, is also taking place around "Pandora's Promise," Robert Stone's equally controversial and reasonably argued film about the benefits of nuclear power. Jeremy Scahill has also said he's receiving more hate-mail from liberals because of his criticisms of Obama in "Dirty Wars." Why so little love?

Pandora's Promise

Coming into both Gibney and Stone's subjects with little outside expert knowledge, I found both films to be engaging and well-researched accounts of their respective material. Even as a die-hard lefty, I bought all of these movies, despite the fact that some of their positions run counter to traditional liberal views. (After Sundance, I wrote a piece for Slate called "Will the Next Wave of Anti-Obama Movies Be Made by Liberals?" which also speaks to some of these issues.)

I think one of the reasons I like these films is that they are complex in their approaches. The fact that they are not preaching to the converted is one of the best things about them. In my Docutopia column this week, I single out "Pandora's Promise" for eschewing heave-handed agitprop to explore an issue with ambiguity. We should applaud these nuanced approaches, whether it's Gibney taking to task both the U.S. government and Julian Assange for the secrets they keep, Scahill calling out both the Bush and Obama administrations, or Stone suggesting that nuclear power, however dangerous it may have been, has also been unfairly demonized on several accounts. If you want good guys vs. bad guys, go see "Man of Steel." But strong documentaries should present ambivalence and moral complexity and wrongdoing on all sides of the political divide.

While the attacks against Gibney and his film have been well-documented, by O'Hehir and others (and I can certainly confirm them, as even I was blasted on Twitter for my favorable piece on "We Steal Secrets"), the backlash against "Pandora's Promise" is just beginning.

In one such paper titled "Pandora's False Promise," published for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, executive director Kennette Benedict writes, "A more powerful approach to this complex threat to humanity would be to film a fact-based, passionate debate that explored the alternatives, trade-offs, and consequences of various energy options. Such an exploration might move us from the usual politics of zealotry to new habits of thought, and perhaps to new forms of action based on all the facts."

But what's funny to me is that this is exactly what I found "Pandora's Promise" to be.

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  • harry harrison | June 13, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    FACTOID: "Similarly, what qualifies Gibney to tackle wikileaks?"

    Um, mr. factoid, using similar logic what qualfies you to tackle "documentary filmmaking"? In the end, your comment is about you, how you organize information, what your unconscious prejudices are.......sound familiar, moron? and while you are at it, go ahead and give me the 1 minute summary of Secrets or Promise, I'm sure it will be as comprehensive than these films.

    I'll never understand why idiots like Factiod even bother with these comments or watching the films (assuming this person watched either film). This person obviously thinks they know everything, so why bother. just keep on trolling.

  • FACTOID | June 14, 2013 8:28 AM

    That's a fascinating take on the subject, Harry Harrison. And thank you for pointing out that personal expression is indeed personal. Which probably accounts for why Spielberg doesn't make Antonioni movies or Gibney doesn't make Fred Weisman documentaries. Each work represents the person creating it! Who would have ever thought?

    A documentary, however, makes heady claims: to be literally true and literally informative. It's understood that all narratives are fiction -- reality does not arrange itself in the form of a coherent crowd-pleasing feature-length movie with a soundtrack -- but a documentary narrative does at least have an obligation to be scrupulous and self-aware, within reasonable limits. Consider, for starters, the very title, "We Steal Secrets". Wikileaks claims it does not directly solicit or encourage sources, and Gibney has not disproven that claim. Why then "steal", when that's exactly what Wikileaks *doesn't* do? In light of the legal theories being developed by the Obama administration to name as "co-conspirators"-- if not eventually prosecute -- journalists for soliciting classified information under the 1917 Espionage Act, this is no small distinction.

    And on it goes. Any number of claims presented in the documentary as factual are questionable and have indeed been questioned, and the reliability of any number of sources, from whom Gibney often solicits speculation, is in serious doubt. There's also substantial evidence of selective editing to promote the filmmaker's thesis. Perhaps worst of all, the film is drowning in pop psychology, in the same way the mainstream media, including NYT, always attempts to explain the behavior of establishment critics as deviant rather than principled. You may recall that NYT reported, on the front page, that Assange doesn't flush the toilet often enough, which explains everything.

    So, the original question stands: how much does Gibney really know about wikileaks? Is the movie indeed "factual"? To what extent did his funding source and market ambitions pre-determine his conclusions? Notice I am not asking about his childhood, or seeking to explain his behavior with reference to his sexuality or to feelings of inadequacy, need or personal confusion. I'd much rather stay with the facts.

    If we can't ask such questions, in the face of a highly opinionated and manipulative piece of work, what's the point of watching a documentary in first place? Unless, of course, it's just entertainment.

  • HARRY HARRY | June 13, 2013 6:50 PM

    Ah, Harry, it's funny how certain internet types reduce everything to "moron", "idiot" and "troll".

    Think maybe there's a doc there? If so, you're the expert in the matter. That, or Exhibit A.

  • factoid | June 13, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    Documentary filmmaking, particularly of the type likely to turn up at major festivals and be commercially released, is entertainment (need we say it?). The actual useful informational content of these 90-120 minute entertainments can routinely be summarized in 1 minute or less.

    In the case of Pandora, neither the filmmaker nor his subjects know much about nuclear power. If viewers understand they're watching a documentary about the extremes which poorly informed people will go for a cause they really don't understand (whether pro or con), fine. But that's clearly not how the documentary is being sold.

    Similarly, what qualifies Gibney to tackle wikileaks? In the end, the film is about him -- how he organizes information, what his unconscious prejudices are, the money and resources he had at his disposal, etc. He doesn't know enough of what can be known, and he invites tabloid speculation in areas which can't be known. This can make for a good show, but it has nothing to do with facts which can be tested.

    These films reveal the filmmaker, not the subject.

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