The makers of historical documentaries seldom seek to challenge the received opinions of their audiences. Even the most talented filmmakers tend to exalt the already exalted and shovel dirt on the thankfully deceased. One can, one should be moved by a production like Freedom Riders, which PBS aired this summer on the fiftieth anniversary of that dramatic, violent episode in the civil rights saga.
What do “documentary” and “newsreel” hope to mean in this benighted age of the Internet, when information threatens to overwhelm intelligence? Though the genre is still hard to fund and difficult to make, there is no doubt but that, in the last 20 years, more documentaries have been getting limited theatrical release. So an orthodox complacency reigns that this is “a good thing.” But is the age of Michael Moore, Ken Burns, Werner Herzog, Frederick Wiseman, and movies like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job really useful and critical of how we are being run?
Sacco and VanzettiFirst Run The Wind That Shakes the BarleyIFC First Take ZodiacParamount On the morning of August 24, 1927, a few weeks before I started high school, I read the headlines in The New York Times announcing the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. I knew something about their story--newspapers and magazines had been brimming with controversy over it ever since I had been able to read--and my parents and their friends had often discussed it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, I thought, at least the story is now finished.
Thomas Jefferson a film by Ken Burns (PBS) The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O'Brien (University of Chicago, 367 pp., $29.95) Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed (University Press of Virginia, 279 pp., $29.95) American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf, 351 pp., $26) I. Especially during his troubled second administration, Thomas Jefferson received a lot of hate mail.