Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
The question "What’s the matter with Kansas?" should immediately bring to mind Thomas Frank’s best-seller on the subject [I interviewed the author here]. That’s good, since the documentary film of the same name is based on Frank's book. I have read only selections from this book, which uses the state of Kansas to make clear how the Republican Party, in tandem with the evangelical Christian movement, has boondoggled Americans into believing that it today represents the common man. I'll let Frank's own words speak for themselves here:
The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the "silent majority," or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the "regular Americans," or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the "red states."
And then think of the political changes that this sappy stuff has helped to sell: Privatization. Deregulation. Monopolies in every industry from banking to radio to meatpacking. The destruction of the welfare state. The beatdown of the labor movement. The transformation of the Midwest into the rust belt. And, shimmering in the heavens above all this, the rise of a new plutocracy, a class of overlords so taken with their own magnificence that they are moved to compare themselves to the Almighty.
What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly -- a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy "elite" while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.
How, in God's name, has all this happened? That's what Mr. Frank's book and now this movie, directed & edited by Joe Winston [I interviewed the filmmaker here] and produced by Laura Cohen, attempt to make clear. The filmmakers accomplish this by offering us -- up close and personal, in some detail, and with the blessing of the people themselves -- how certain Kansans think, feel, believe and behave.
So we get: Angel Dillard, a gung-ho-for-God mom and churchgoer with a lovely family, a beautiful voice and a backstory that pulls the rug right out from under your preconceptions; M.T. Liggett, an artist from Mullinville, KS, and a crusty, speak-out kind of guy who, I believe, has been seen in at least one other documentary (though not at the length he is shown here); Donn Teske, president of the Farmer's Union, a former Republican who turned independent due to the arrogance of the Bush administration; the Pastor Terry Fox (together with his flock), who manages to use the most bizarrely inappropriate (or maybe it's quite appropriate) "snake" metaphor to describe his church; Brittany Barden, a young girl from an Evangelical family who makes her quiet way toward admission to the country's premier religious school, Patrick Henry college; and many other Kansans of both right- and left-leaning views.
Because Winston uses no narration nor commentary, we only hear what the characters on view have to tell us, so we can draw our own conclusions. Filmed over several years, the movie takes us up to and just after the 2006 elections, at which point a more leftward swing begins to be felt. Although the film spends more time with its Republican, Evangelical participants, we do get to hear and see some of the state's populist champions, one of whom explains that our country's radical/populist tradition began in the Midwest states. In the 1912 election, Kansas actually went for socialist Eugene Debs, and some of the work of Margaret Sanger was first published here. Who knew? Not this particular "lefty."
Although the movie ends after the 2006 shift, there is no feeling of relief or sense of closure in store. We spend our last minutes with Brittany Barden (shown above, center) at her college, where the fight for Christian control of the USA continues apace. With, as usual, blithe disregard of our country's founders' insistence on separation of Church and State, the good pastor explains, "The only hope for America is for the righteous to get involved in politics." And if the "righteous" happen to be wrong? Yet there's not a shred of doubt in the mind of any of the evangelicals we see here. This alone should scare the pants off intelligent viewers -- those, at least, who do not imagine themselves to be the recipients of god's word.
Some good extras on Passion River's What's the Matter With Kansas DVD include a worthy audio commentary with filmmakers Winston and Cohen, and author Thomas Frank, an audience Q&A, and quite a few deleted and extended scenes.
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