Thanks to Kirby Dick’s Outrage, we’re faced with the return of an awkward question: If a documentary is “important,” how much should it matter whether or not it’s, you know, any good?
That’s not as simple a question as you
might think. And it’s different from the
question of whether or not the “important”
documentary in question is fair and/or
meticulously accurate. Michael Moore has
spent a decade making politically charged
movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko that
have been less than rigorous in their journalism
and often smugly self-righteous.
But they might—just might—have made a
tremendous difference in their impact on
the national debate. It ain’t great art, but
it achieves something—and shouldn’t we
value the latter more?
Outrage has already become something
of a lightning rod due to its controversial
subject matter: Dick wants to “out” closeted
gay politicians, most of them avowed
conservative Republicans, who pursue an
actively anti-gay rights agenda in either their
voting records or their public statements.
Launching from the high-profile 2007 incident
in which Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was
accused of “lewd conduct” in a Minneapolis
airport bathroom stall, Dick opens the
door of bathroom stalls and closets all over
Washington, D.C., and various state governments.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Calif. Rep.
David Dreier and ex-Republican National
Committee chairman Ken Mehlman are
among those named. It’s pretty incendiary
stuff, if not exactly breaking news to those
who pay attention to such things.
Indeed, some of Outrage’s most compelling
material deals with exactly who is
paying attention to such things, at least
publicly. Dick casts almost as harsh a light
on the mainstream media as he does on the
two-faced politicians, arguing that newspapers
and other corporate media have
refused to treat the sexual orientation of
politicians as fair game for investigation.
While he allows at least token representation
of the idea that such “outings”
are inappropriate or unfair, he
also suggests that at least part of the
reason for the lack of coverage has less to
do with “fairness” than with gay journalists
and their colleagues who don’t want
their own sexuality to become newsworthy.
With activist blogger Michael Rogers as
his crusading on-screen protagonist, Dick
makes the case that forcing hypocritical
politicians into the light of day isn’t just
about schadenfreude. It’s about chipping
away at the idea that gay sexuality is a
shameful secret that should be hidden.
If you’re a progressive-minded person,
that’s probably a noble, worthy idea. But
it’s also part of a movie, and Outrage simply
doesn’t always succeed as a piece of
filmmaking. Understandably, because they
need to have every one of their evidentiary
ducks in a row, Dick and Rogers spend a lot
of time tracking down sources, providing
documentation, showing hang-yourself-with-your-own-words interview footage
and otherwise backing up their claims.
That’s good journalism. It’s just not necessarily
good cinema. Nor is it particularly
enlightening hearing the same basic idea—
these politicians are doing a bad thing—
stated and re-stated several dozen times by
different people. As the director of informative
and cinematically satisfying documentaries
like Sick, Derrida and This Film is
Not Yet Rated, Dick clearly understands that
it’s possible for the two goals to co-exist.
Here, it appears that he has approximately
45 minutes’ worth of material supporting a
Yes, there are many powerful, affecting—and, occasionally, amusing—moments
spread throughout Outrage. Dick conveys the
stories of politicians who did decide to make
their sexuality public, including former New
Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, and mines
humor from the idea that gay staffers on
Capitol Hill virtually keep the wheels of government
turning. But Outrage also spends
time re-hashing scandals and allegations
involving politicians who are no longer in
office, like resigned Virginia congressman
Ed Schrock and retired Lousiana congressman
Jim McCrery. Such content doesn’t seem
in line with the project’s stated purpose of
making clear the potentially hidden hypocrisies
of those still in a position to make
policy; it feels more like self-congratulation
for the success of Rogers’ previous efforts.
Maybe Rogers’ current efforts—and
those of Outrage—will make a world of
difference. In a perfect world, they’d also
make a better movie.
Directed by Kirby Dick