Last week, as much of the country celebrated Obama's second inauguration, the Sundance Film Festival was presenting a very different view of the commander-in-chief. Two films, Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley's "Dirty Wars" and Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," both take unforgiving looks at the president.
It's not hard to find Obama-bashing nonfiction these days — see last year's rightwing hit 2016: "Obama's America," for instance — but it was at least mildly surprising to see two such films at Sundance, generally a bastion of liberalism, founded by famous lefty Robert Redford. Sundance hosted the premiere of the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2006. This year, as the festival was getting under way, the Huffington Post confirmed the festival's bleeding-heart reputation with an article titled, "Liberal Documentaries Light Up Sundance."
Of course, the two films are, in fact, made by liberals. Jeremy Scahill is a contributor to The Nation, Rowley made the the WTO protest doc "This Is What Democracy Looks Like," and Alex Gibney won an Oscar for his U.S. torture expose "Taxi to the Dark Side." What they've done, and what filmmakers have seemed reluctant to do over the past four years, is attack Obama from the left.
"Dirty Wars," in particular, comes down hard on the administration and its expanded use of drone attacks to wage war overseas.
By comparison, Gibney's jibes against Obama are far less barbed. But even though "We Steal Secrets" focuses, as its title suggests, on Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, the film includes a few stinging attacks against the country's executive branch. Most notably, Gibney includes a famous clip from a White House news conference in which ABC News' Jake Tapper presses Obama about the treatment of alleged Wikileaks collaborator Bradley Manning. The film makes it powerfully evident that Manning was, in fact, unfairly abused, stripped and held in solitary confinement, which makes Obama's response seem all the more callous and out-of-touch. "I've actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of [Manning's] confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards," the president says. "They assured me that they are."
Back in 2009, Michael Moore said it was still "too early" to judge the president. "I'm willing to give the man a bit of a chance," he explained at the premiere of "Capitalism: A Love Story." "But a year from now," he added, "the next movie may be about him." More than three years later, Moore still hasn't made a movie about Obama, and some of his fans seem to be imploring him to do so. On Twitter, someone recently asked him, "Will you be doing a movie on drone use? Or that Obama has declared the execution of US citizens perfectly legit?" Even if Moore himself doesn't, it looks like other left-leaning filmmakers are taking up the charge.
Anthony Kaufman is a freelance film journalist who has written for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice,among other publications.