RIOTSVILLE, USA (2022, doc)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. A couple of old sayings came to mind while watching this. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This ties together what we see from the 1960’s with what we’ve seen very recently in the U.S. Next would be, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” This references the manner in which our government reacted to civil unrest in the 1960s has affected our society for the past 50+ years.

Documentarian Sierra Pettingill utilizes only archival footage from TV (newscasts and talk shows) and military footage filmed during the era. The clips are edited in a way to tell the story of how the government responded to increased civil unrest, and how those responses not only made the situation worse, it also set the table for ongoing societal issues for decades to come.

Historical background includes President Lyndon Johnson forming the Kerner Commission (officially The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), and how the resulting 700 page 1968 report did not provide the conclusions expected by the government. It warned of two societies – one white, one black, separate and unequal. The corresponding action items were deemed too expensive due to the ongoing Vietnam War. Instead an addendum suggested expanded federal funding for police … that one hit home with politicians.

Much of the footage, as well as the film’s title, comes from the model town constructed by the military at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. It’s here where training sessions occurred with military personnel cast as rioters and law enforcement learned the approaches to quell the uprising. Unfortunately, most of these approaches involved law enforcement escalation during civil unrest, leaving us wondering which causes the most damage. We even see military leaders observing the drills from the grandstands, applauding and laughing in some parts. It’s impossible not to notice that these are all white faces.

Further escalation and federal funding resulted in specialty tanks, and we see the training videos around this weapon. At its core, what we see is a simulated riot in a simulated city. It’s easy to view this as training hate and power, rather than learning de-escalation techniques. Director Pettingill also includes clips from PBL (precursor to PBS) talk shows like “Civil Disorder”. These shows, and their debates, caused Ford Motor Company to withdraw funding in 1969. The news clips from the 1968 Democrat and Republican conventions provide some insight into the reporting during this era. Especially biting is David Brinkley’s response to Strom Thurmond’s comments. The film’s only weakness comes in the form of narration from Charlene Modeste. The words are simply too flowery or artsy for such subject matter. This is a film that urges you to feel the frustrations. It turns out “Law & Order” can be twisted by those in power.

Releasing in theaters and OnDemand beginning September 16, 2022


THE REAGAN SHOW (2017, doc)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. More film footage exists of Ronald Reagan’s eight years as President than the previous five administrations combined. Under the guise of pulling back the curtain on how this was orchestrated by the actor-turned-politician, co-directors Sierra Pettengill and Pancho Velez instead seem more focused on delivering a hatchet job on the 40th U.S. President known as “the Great Communicator”.

With the exception of a few talking heads (Tom Brokaw, Walter Mondale, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson, etc), the film exists almost entirely of archival video and film footage from Reagan’s time in office. It kicks off on December 21, 1988 as Reagan and film crew prepares for his final interview with David Brinkley. The closing sequence shows Reagan’s final day in the White House as he leaves the Oval Office for the last time … and how it was choreographed for the cameras.

Two things are quite evident in showing what the filmmakers were after: an emphasis on the Cold War and the PR battles between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the parallels and comparisons to the current U.S. President … though Donald Trump is never mentioned. Gorbachev was the only politician up to that time who could match, or even eclipse, Reagan’s comprehension of the value in controlling the public relations (as opposed to media relations). As a precursor to the Reality TV era, the 1988 Moscow Summit even featured TV shirts made in the United States!

The Trump comparisons seem endless and lightly-veiled as we see Reagan manipulate and clash with the media, while also strategically evading when necessary. With a slew of Democrats, journalists, and broadcasters casting aspersions and doubt on Reagan’s competency and commitment, there is even the accusation that he depended on his staff too heavily. This stands in stark contrast to what these days is reported on Trump – someone who doesn’t depend enough on staff and advisers. We can’t help but take note of how it’s always the media and opposing party making these determinations and judgments.

Additional pot shots occur around the Iran ‘arms for hostages’ scandal, and it comes across as if the filmmakers think the close relationship between Ron and Nancy (“I thought I married an actor”) somehow proves their point that he was disengaged as President. That’s right, the point of the documentary has little to do with how Reagan played to the camera (which is the premise being sold), but rather how they judge him to be style over substance. The footage utilized is excellent and the film is well structured, but most documentary viewers would prefer the filmmakers be upfront about their mission. Own it.

watch the trailer: