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Moriarty’s Documentary Catch-Up! MAN ON WIRE! AMERICAN TEEN! I.O.U.S.A.! Which Is One Of The Year’s Best Films?!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. It’s been a rough summer for documentaries at the box-office, but a few films have managed to break through and at least create a bit of buzz. It may not have translated into giant DARK KNIGHT style business, but at least they’ve made some impression. And in one case, I’d say one of the very best films of the year deserves more attention than it’s gotten so far, and I hope the film finds a second wind as it continues to roll out in theaters around the country. AMERICAN TEEN certainly got the biggest push possible from Paramount Vantage when they released it, and they worked very hard behind the scenes to get it in front of the press and also make the “cast” available. After you’ve dealt with enough studio publicists over the years, you get a good feel for when they really love something, and they really loved AMERICAN TEEN. It was obvious in the energy they put into their work on the film. I wish I had loved it as much as they did, but the truth is that Nanette Burstein’s technique on the film raises so many red flags for me as a viewer that I had trouble offering up the endorsement. I think it’s skilled filmmaking in many ways, but when you’re dealing with documentaries, there is an expectation of a certain degree of honesty, and I didn’t feel like I could trust what I was watching enough to hand myself over to it. What a shame. The film itself isn’t a particularly novel conceit... when I reviewed Kirby Dick’s far superior CHAIN CAMERA at Sundance in 2001, what struck me about it was the way his choices as a filmmaker (he gave the kids a camera and then asked them to film themselves instead of having a crew follow them around) removed him from the process enough that I felt like we were seeing these kids as they really are. Burstein, on the other hand, has created such a controlled environment and structure for her movie that although it ends up working well as a narrative, that comes at the expense of a certain degree of credibility. Her film feels like a Hollywood version of real life, like a very skilled episode of something like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. She follows a group of students through a full year of high school, and in the process, she tries to dispel certain stereotypes by taking us behind the images that kids project, hopefully so we can see something universal in the experiences they all have in common.

And it’s an appealing group of kids, no doubt. The two that were most embraced by critics and audiences were, unsurprisingly, Hannah Bailey and Jake Tusing, the two who seem most resolutely themselves at the time the film was being made. High school is still a time of self-definition, and for many people, it’s a practice run before college. I’d say that Megan Krizmanich, who is the queen bee of the high school and a fairly rotten person at times in the film, is a perfect example of that. Her insecurities are crystal clear in the film, and every single time she picks on someone else or uses her wee li’l bit of power to tear some other poor kid down, it’s obvious that she’s just doing it because she can. She’s one step away from crumbling under the pressure her parents have put on her to get into a particular college, and as a result, she’s miserable, determined to share that misery with anyone she can. I don’t for a second believe that if I met Megan today she’d be the same person, though. With Hannah and Jake, they seem like kids who have already figured out who they are, so their main struggle seems to be finding a way to make others accept them. Hannah in particular has a really powerful self-determination in the film, and even when she gets sidelined over what appears to be silly soap-opera stuff, she still retains this focus that allows her to stand up to her family and make choices for herself at a time when a lot of kids are just doing what they’re told because they have no idea what they want yet. My issues with the film basically come from the editing and the way things were shot. Too much of the film feels staged. Even if the events are true, there’s a false quality to a lot of the scenes. They feel constructed. I’m not convinced that Burstein was above asking for a second take. On something like THE HILLS, who gives a shit? No one honestly believes that “reality television” has anything to do with reality, do they? With a documentary, though, there should be a little more church and state. Recreations are fine, as long as they’re clearly labeled as such, and as long as you’re not talking about something that you could have filmed for real. Here, Burstein’s film feels conveniently structured in places, too neatly put together, and it killed it for me.

I.O.U.S.A. is about as far from AMERICAN TEEN in style and execution as a film can be while still both being described as “documentaries.” This is much more of a conventional talking-head style film that analyzes a particular issue, and when I first heard a description of it, I thought it sounded deadly dull. My parents came into town recently, though, and my dad asked me a few weeks before their visit to see if I could track down a press screening of the film or a screener of it for him to see while he was here. In one of those lovely bits of synchronicity, an event was announced for August 21st featuring a screening of the film followed by a nationally synchronized Q&A session with Warren Buffett, Pete Peterson, Dave Walker, and a few others participating. One of the theaters listed was the Woodland Hills Promenade, which is all of about ten minutes from my house, so we booked our tickets. I was a little reluctant because Fathom Events has such a terrible track record regarding presentation when they do those anniversary screenings of films like POLTERGEIST or FIRST BLOOD, but in this case, the less-than-perfect digital video projection didn’t do a significant disservice to the film, which is a very lively presentation of a considerable number of charts and graphs and graphic demonstrations. It was like going to a very, very slick PowerPoint presentation in some ways. That’s a little unfair to the work by director Patrick Creardon. As with WORDPLAY, his documentary about crossword culture, this is a very smart overall package. Along with co-writers Christine O’Malley (Creardon’s wife and producer) and Addison Wiggin (who also wrote the book this film is adapted from), he’s managed to construct a compelling emotional film that takes a sober-eyed look at just how fucked we are financially in America right now. And, guys... I don’t care what your political beliefs or affiliations are, let’s face some facts: we are not doing well. I.O.U.S.A. gets into the deficits that are forcing us into a position of crisis right now (budget, savings, trade, and leadership), and it’s the leadership deficit that has to change if everything else is going to follow. That is not me saying “Change will solve things,” either. Only the right change will solve things, and until it happens, we won’t know, will we? David Walker is the star of the film, in my opinion, and turned out to be the star of the evening overall thanks to his participation in the Q&A afterwards. He’s the President and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and he used to be the Comptroller General of the United States. He ran the Government Accountability Office. This is, to say the least, a serious guy, a guy who has managed to have a real and direct impact on our government without being a party player for either side. He has been sounding the alarm about our government’s money problems for about a decade now, and he’s never been soft-spoken about just how angry people should be. It’s just that... well... I didn’t know anything about David M. Walker until I saw this. Until I came home and did a little reading about him. Here’s this guy who should be the voice we are listening to since that was... you know... HIS JOB AND ALL... and no one seems concerned by what he’s saying. There is an urgency to the message of this film, of course, since the debt is climbing steadily and constantly, and there are a number of different voices represented here. Much of the film follows Walker on his “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour,” where he travels to do Town Hall meetings along with people from The Concord Coalition, The Brookings Institute, and The Heritage Foundation, among others. Robert Bixby is a particularly fascinating foil for Walker, both of them brilliant and engaged speakers, but Walker the one who looks buttoned down and in control while Bixby has a touch of the mad scientist thing going on. Their conversations manage to downplay just how scary everything they say really is if you’re paying attention. I thought it was interesting during the Q&A afterwards how Warren Buffett kept talking about how the economy’s not just doing well right now, but it’s on track to keep doing better and better so there will be a piece of the pie for everyone “because the pie just keeps getting better.” No one else on the panel agreed with that in the slightest, and Walker openly scoffed at the “Pollyanna crap” that Buffett was bringing up. Walker strikes me as a man who is tired of having to say the same thing over and over, but genuinely motivated by a sense of public service so he’s willing to say it as many times as he has to in order to get people to listen. I doubt most of you will get the chance to see the film in theaters, but keep your eyes open just in case. If not, pick it up at least as a rental the moment it comes out for home video. If you plan on (A) making any money (B) spending any money (C) saving any money or (D) owning anything whatsoever, you may want to pay attention, because this is your economy they’re talking about, your future they’re spending, and you should be far, far angrier than you already are. For a film as volatile as this, Creardon keeps things informational, engaging, and never turns it into a shrill screed or an attack piece. It’s apolitical. It’s got one thing on its mind: figuring out just how America got into the mess its in, and finding a way out of it. I.O.U.S.A. doesn’t answer every question it raises; not by a long shot. But at least it raises the questions. That alone deserves your attention.

But if you’re reeeeeeally lucky, maybe MAN ON WIRE is playing near you right now. If it is, go. Don’t put it off any longer. Don’t hesitate. You should see the film on the biggest screen you can in order to partially understand the visceral impact of what Philippe Petit did, but also so you get some sense of the vertigo created in the places he pulled off his stunts. Basically, Petit is a performance artist, long before that phrase existed, and to the great benefit of director James Marsh, there was a ton of footage taken back at the time of the stunts, giving him tons of material to work with now. Oddly, even though much of that footage was staged or done for fun, it feels more “real” than much of AMERICAN TEEN, and I think it’s because there’s so little artifice to it. Petit is one of those guys who seems incapable of being false or disguising his own eccentricities, and so no matter how the vintage footage was obtained, it seems to reveal quite a bit about the time and the place and just how innocent Petit was while planning his daring crime. It’s so funny to use that word in that context. “Crime.” Technically speaking, what Petit did was a crime each time he did it, but it’s the same kind of crime that, say, the work of Banksy is these days. It’s art. It’s something they are compelled to do, and the results can transport us out of ourselves, if only for a moment. The “ecstatic moment” is a cultural concept that has manifested itself in any number of ways throughout human history, but basically, it’s the moment that people are chasing as they either alter their consciousness or as they create art or as they push themselves sexually or as they embark on some death-defying stunt. It’s a moment of transcendence, a moment when you embrace the full potential of what it is to be human. Some people live their entire life without having one, and other people move from ecstatic moment to ecstatic moment by design. When Phillipe Petit first saw a picture of the World Trade Center, it was still unbuilt. It was just a design, an idea. But in that moment, he knew he was going to find a way to get to New York, sling a tightrope between the buildings, and then walk across. And from that moment, he never once wavered in his determination to figure out how to make that happen. He was chasing his own ecstatic moment, but in doing so and finally making it happen, he provided that moment to the people of New York who were lucky enough to witness it, and to his friends who helped him pull it off. One of the miracles of Marsh’s film is how much he makes you feel like you’re part of the planning and execution of this feat. The film is almost built like a heist movie, and there are several sequences where Marsh has staged recreations to play under interviews with the various people involved. Again... even though those scenes are blatantly recreations of real events, it works to emphasize the truth of the story. Marsh is one hell of a filmmaker. His last film, THE KING, has some issues, but it’s an undeniably moody and tense experience, with strong performances from both Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt. And WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, his 1999 documentary, is a profoundly underrated film that really established just how bold and unusual his vision is. MAN ON WIRE works as drama, works as history, and works as character x-ray. It’s a profound picture, and the highest praise I can offer it is that Marsh has provided film audiences with an ecstatic moment worthy of Petit’s original accomplishment, and it’s well worth tracking down.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 6, 2008, 2:26 a.m. CST


    by BatPsycho

    i got nothing

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 2:33 a.m. CST


    by hike499

    Yeah, I had intense problems with Burstein's "American Teen" as well. I just felt like the whole thing hit the beat of the state of "reality" in relations to kids/teens today. They are all raised on this Hills/Laguna beach, later-season Real World brand of reality where they essentially perform for the camera. I love moments in American Teen where Hannah is clearly depressed but we get these wonderful draggy shots of her sitting on a pier staring off into the middle distance. Profound, Nanette. I really loved "The Kid Stays in the Picture". What happened here?

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 2:35 a.m. CST

    Man On Wire really is incredible

    by blindambition238

    It was the first time I've ever seen an audience tear up out of sheer awe and admiration of an (in)human feat. Not to mention the fact that the coup de grace of the entire film was told not through videos, but simple pictures and images that were carried by some simple editing, music, and sheer enthusiasm and emotions of the interview subjects.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 3:06 a.m. CST


    by blackhole4140

    Is scary stuff. Any American under 30 should be required to watch it.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 6:38 a.m. CST

    Another fan of Man on Wire here...

    by Tom Whitaker

    Even though the phrase 'performance art' sticks in the back of my throat a little, the film brought tears to my eyes. It was an incredible feat and but the film manages to show you that it was a beautiful one too, something I don't think I'd have necessarily felt without the back-story provided.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 10:16 a.m. CST

    Man on Wire

    by T 1000 xp professional

    has just become a must see

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 10:28 a.m. CST

    Having seen more and more of American Teen..

    by WhinyNegativeBitch

    ...It seems as if they either tailored the documentary to fit a more stereotypical mould, or that they chose some rather boring people that would fit that mould, especially the arty chick, who comes across as wholely manufactured to appeal to emo kids. IOUSA sounded interesting from the get go, but definately something I would probably rather READ, but I'll give it a shot on rental, can't be any worse than an Inconveniant Truth, although you would think people would be far worked up over something as simple to control and fix as debt, as opposed to the environment. Man On Wire sounded dull as dishwater to me at first, but fucking hell its gotten nothing but great notices. I guess i'll be renting that as soon as it hits the shelves too.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 10:31 a.m. CST

    Man On Wire and economic troubles

    by AdmiralNeck

    IOUSA has yet to come out in the UK, but it sounds interesting and horribly depressing. If you're interested in the subject, One Market Under God by Thomas Frank and The Gods That Failed by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson are worth reading. If you don't mind thinking your world is about to end with foreclosures and eating mouldy bagels out of dumpsters.<p> Man On Wire should be winning awards all year long, hopefully. In sad news, it's co-funded by the BBC as part of its Storyville strand, which is responsible for some of the best documentaries of the last few years. Every one I've seen has been amazing. It's the crown jewel in the BBC's crown. So what do they do? Cut funding so that it makes around 50% less films a year. It's a crying shame. I doubt the critical success of Man On Wire will even do anything to change that fact.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 10:33 a.m. CST


    by AdmiralNeck

    Man On Wire looks amazing when digitally projected. Thank you Curzon Soho for embracing the 21st Century! It even looks crystal clear as tears streamed down my face at the end. Great, great filmmaking. Wisconsin Death Trip is amazing too. Didn't realise it was the same guy.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 10:50 a.m. CST

    History and 56 Billion dollars

    by JackRabbitSlim

    clue me into thinking Warren Buffet is right ... as he is about just about everything else (see internet collapse, shorting the dollar, etc etc) Suggesting he is at all Pollyannish about just about anything (the man is notoriously unemotional when it comes to stocks or just about anything else) is ... foolish.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 11:20 a.m. CST

    American Teen=The Hills


    You made a very important point. Once the audiences come to expect the same "reality" from the documentary form as they do from TV, thats the end of it. No truth. No revelation. Just "drama" I havent seen it but the trailer made me feel manipulated. Like, in the world I grew up in, no matter how hot the weird girl is, she is still the weird girl, and no jock would ever date her.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 11:52 a.m. CST

    I enjoyed Man on Wire

    by Reelheed

    Although I found the footage of the actual stunt a bit of a let down its worth seeing for the rest of the film. The sequence showing the construction of the world trade towers was really powerful. It still blows my mind to think that such a gigantic wonder of engineering and labour came to such a tradgic and sudden end. I'll certainly look out for the others - cheers Mori!

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 12:38 p.m. CST

    I want to see Man On Wire but...

    by Manatee

    I get so sick of Type-A adrenalin junkies saying, "Look at me, look at me! I'm REALLY living life while the rest of you are just pretending!" If by attending this film I'm helping to celebrate that mindset, I refuse to do it. And I REALLY refuse to recognize this type of activity as "art." I've known a handful of people like this and, invariably, they are self-absorbed douchebags who live to lord their "accomplishments" over us mere mortals. We all get our jollies in different ways; stop looking down your nose at people who don't need to cheat death to get theirs.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 12:45 p.m. CST


    by hike499

    What is equally frustrating about the film is that the romance between the jock and Hannah (the weird/arty chick) is basically wholly manufactured by the filmmaker. I have read reports that the two people were urged to spend time together and their relationship was amplified for dramatic effect. Way too much manipulation for me...

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 1:37 p.m. CST

    Man On Wire = Best Film of the Year (SPOILERS!!!)

    by jgmamma0

    If I see another film greater, as great, or even approaching the greatness of Man On Wire, I will be astonished. Right now, my top Films this Year would be 1) Man On Wire 2) Speed Racer 3) The Dark Knight 4) Wall-E 5) Tell No One ....I am struggling to put others on this list so far. Two more quick points on Man On Wire: SPOILERS!!!! 1) It may have one of the best sex scenes ever in the history of in all of its joy and transcendence... 2) The shot of Man On Wire that I think is the best footage in the entire film and perhaps this entire year is not the dramatic recreations or the photographs of the actual wire walking between the WTC towers. These were all well done and dramatically integrated as well as an Oliver Stone or Orson Welles could have done it. It is old color footage from the New York Tv news of the police sergeant being interviewed about the incident. The awe and the expression on his face felt like he had just seen the "hand of God" touch down on this little planet of ours. Incredible. If you are a true believer in the spirituality of movies, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. 1) I

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 1:42 p.m. CST

    True Believers in Spirituality of Movies, See This Movie!!!!

    by jgmamma0

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 2:38 p.m. CST

    MAN ON WIRE = One Hell Of A Movie

    by Mr. Nice Gaius

    Truly one of the most moving and unique film experiences I've ever had. It's hard to put into words what was going through my mind as the film reached its apex. The only thing I could think of to say was "unbelievable". But that's just it, it IS believable - it's real and it happened.<P>As someone who is deathly afraid of heights (despite the fact that I've gone skydiving...), I can honestly say there are 2 or 3 moments of genuine vertigo that I "suffered" while sitting rapt in my chair. And there were more than a few gasps from the theater crowd along the way. It's this visceral element that makes the film that much more enjoyable.<P>MAN ON WIRE is definitely a film that captures a moment of true human transcendence. It also serves as a testament to one man's vision of the WTC - a much more beautiful one than the memory we were left with after 9/11.<P> I exited the theater, all misty-eyed, it was all I could do to keep from jumping up and shouting, "By Jove, he did it!!!"<P>Moriarty - I've been telling everyone I know to try and see this film in a theater. Thanks for the review.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 2:51 p.m. CST

    Yeah, MNG...

    by drew mcweeny

    ... one of the things that I find really moving about the film is that for the past seven years, when I think of the WTC, I think of one thing. Now, thanks to Marsh and Petit, I think of something else first, and the fact that they managed to somehow reclaim the WTC from horror and tragedy is the most powerful act any filmmaker's committed this year, in my opinion.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 3:20 p.m. CST

    Moriarty - I couldn't agree more.

    by Mr. Nice Gaius

    And it was something I realized when I began telling people about the movie. Suddenly, I was smiling while talking about the WTC. When was the last time that happened?!<P>I really enjoyed the music used in the film, too. It was a great compliment to the visuals.

  • Sept. 6, 2008, 8:17 p.m. CST

    To heck with the other movies, Man on Wire talkbalk

    by Galactic

    IOUSA is a vastly important film, but Man on Wire is the one that will have you believing in the human spirit again. We as a race can really do some amazing things, if we would just dare to go after our dreams, as cheesy as that sounds.