Thank Michael Moore for inaugurating the modern era of the lefty polemical documentary. Various imitators have come along in the wake of successful films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, in which Moore promoted progressive causes.
I see elements of Moore's style in Pay 2 Play: Democracy's High Stakes, about money's corrupting influence in politics. Like Moore, writer-director John Wellington Ennis narrates his film as he takes on various sources of resentment for the left, from union busting and the Koch brothers to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
But Ennis lacks Moore's skill. Moore isn't just a passionate liberal with a movie camera. He's a deft interviewer and a savvy entertainer, and he builds arguments carefully. He can be shameless, but in a craftsmanlike way. I'm thinking of the moment in Bowling for Columbine when Moore holds up a little girl's photo and speaks plaintively, as NRA President Charlton Heston slowly walks away. Moore lays down important groundwork before this climactic scene, and it's effective cinema.
Ennis, on the other hand, begins his film with baby pictures, and if you're jaded, you might think your emotions are about to be manipulated. As it happens, Pay 2 Play is more effective emotionally than it is as a lucid argument, because Ennis examines so many issues so rapidly. Film just isn't a good medium for conveying this kind of detail. Much of it comes in interviews with prominent progressives, including The Capital Times' John Nichols. Also interviewed: disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who seems to be making a bid at redemption.
Sometimes Ennis slows down, digs deeper. These sequences have their rewards. In one, a young Ohio Democrat runs for Congress and refuses to take PAC money. He loses to his Republican opponent, catastrophically. I'm intrigued by profiles of disguised, populist street artists, even if their electronically altered voices are a cliché of lurid TV news.
In short, Ennis has given us a lot to think about, but he hasn't made an effective movie. Cutesy elements don't help, including an organizing motif centered on the board game Monopoly. It's distracting and not very persuasive.
Some of the arguments are wobbly. Ennis begins with footage of Noam Chomsky making the familiar claim that the two major parties are basically interchangeable, but virtually the only political partisans depicted favorably are Democrats.
Then we're told that a few years ago in Ohio and Wisconsin, protests erupted when officials diminished public unions' power. That's true, but Ennis follows up only with a mention of a pro-union electoral outcome in Ohio. As Wisconsinites know, Gov. Scott Walker's union policy is still in place, and so is he, despite his opponents' efforts. These details seem too important to leave out.