Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sundance: Ain't That America?

[Film Fest] Notwithstanding my assertion in a City Weekly feature that Sundance was growing ever more international in its thinking, this is still first and foremost an American film festival. How can you tell? Maybe titles like American Son, American Teen, An American Soldier (re-titled The Recruiter since the printing of the film guide).

But it’s not just the titles that are as American as Mom, apple pie and John Mellencamp-scored Chevy commercials. The filmmakers this year seem to be asking what we are all about as a nation during this turbulent time, and they come up with a variety of interesting answers. The documentaries The Recruiter and Secrecy both address controversial current-events topics, but from distinct angles. In Edet Belzberg’s The Recruiter, we meet Houma, La.-based Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Clay Usie, who manages to keep pulling in new potential soldiers even in a time of war. The first half of the film, which follows Usie as he befriends and mentors four teenagers before basic training, provides a fascinating look at a man utterly committed to his mission – to the extent that he makes unsettling overtures to the brother of a recently killed-in-action National Guardsman. Usie’s such a terrific character that the film loses a lot of momentum when it shifts gears to follow those four recruits through their basic training. The footage is eye-opening, but the narrative becomes more about the mechanics of what they do than why they do it.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’ Secrecy doesn’t traffic in Staff Sgt. Usie’s brand of patriotic moral certitude – though it certainly allows some who do to speak their minds. The filmmakers wind their way through a variety of issues related to the Bush administration’s clampdown on the availability of information, touching on both the perils and the advantages of keeping secrets. But the most fascinating element is a through-line involving the 1948 crash of a B-29 bomber, and the subsequent Supreme Court case that became a landmark “state secrets” case. Even as it touches on obvious security vs. democracy questions, it also puts a human face on what happens when an institution doesn’t consider itself accountable to anyone.

And it’s also the human face that elevates one of the festivals best documentaries thus far: Christopher Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster*. The one-time bodybuilder clearly has the Morgan Spurlock model in mind as he makes himself the star of an investigation of steroids in American society that could have been titled Super-Duper Size Me. Yet while Bell has a showman’s sense for making his subject matter thoroughly entertaining, he takes his story in a surprisingly affecting direction. Focusing on the steroid-fueled lives of his two brothers – one an occasional pro wrestler, the other a bodybuilder and high school football coach – Bell does not instantly and obviously demonize steroids. Instead, he asks what it is about our culture that makes us so willing to do absolutely anything to get an advantage. The answers he finds makes it hard to imagine that any pro sports league policy or Federal law will dissuade a populace constantly reminded that they’re never good enough. U! S! A! U! S! A! (Scott Renshaw)

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