Some things shouldn’t be relevant anymore. At least, we hope they wouldn’t be.
The exhausting, hopeless conclusion of the BBC’s 1984 anti-nuke film, Threads, seems like it shouldn’t be a possibility anymore. The defeated mania that looms over Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd shouldn’t feel more relevant today than it did when first released in 1957 but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t. It would seem like Stanley Kubrick making bleak jokes and observations about the futility of war in Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove would, in an idyllic world, shut down the argument for endless conflicts — but apparently it didn’t take.
Watching the 4K restoration of Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown’s 1979 documentary, The War at Home, I couldn’t help but think about two documentaries I’d watched recently, and how different this ‘70s documentary was from the contemporary films I’ve seen.
The first was a solo screening of the pro-Trump, QAnon- friendly documentary, American Deep State. For over two hours, I felt my little liberal synapses explode as I watched the hastily thrown together film drone on about Barack Hussein Obama, the deep state and ultimately, about Trump’s greatness. It was not so much a documentary as it was an amateurish creepy ramble.
A couple weeks later, I saw Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, a movie that celebrated and chronicled our 39th president’s ascension and the binding ties of music. I definitely liked it way more than American Deep State; but in the end, it didn’t rise to more than a decent way to pass a couple hours. It was a pleasant movie that only reaffirmed my positive opinion of Carter. Both films, one more grossly than the other, essentially adored their subject and spoke to their base.
The definition of documentary has expanded. Depending on your perspective, you could say it has evolved or devolved. Some documentaries, like the Fran Lebowitz doc Public Speaking, are entertaining personality profiles. Some, like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, hold up an unflinching mirror, calling for change, while others, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi can simply make you hungry. Some, like Silber and Brown’s film, lean more in the cold observation category, leaving you, the viewer, to make up your own mind.
The War at Home begins with newsreel footage from the early ‘60s. Next we see a young man being interviewed as he burns his draft card followed by a montage of protestors holding signs like “Get Out of Vietnam,” “Support Southern Sit-Ins” and “No Nation Can Win a Nuclear War” as a Bob Dylan song plays underneath.
From there we watch war footage, news footage of former presidents and interviews with anti-war protestors in the late ’70s recounting when they joined the movement. We’re even treated to Lyndon B. Johnson’s popular, game-changing “Daisy” political ad. What will stick out to the viewer will be the overall lack of a bombastic soundtrack or rapid edits while tracking the growing nonviolence movement and civil disobedience.
The documentary doles out information and, like many docs in an era before reality TV and 24-hour news channels, doesn’t condescend. I really appreciated that. There were quite a few recollections that are quietly jolting, including one almost weirdly prescient moment involving President Nixon ignoring student protestors to watch a football game.
The War at Home is a wonderful documentary. I can see why it made such a splash when it was initially released. I can also understand why some viewers may be turned off by the lack of sensationalistic melodrama they may have become accustomed to over recent years. While the doc was once merely a time capsule showing how protests took us to a better place, the 2020 reality has transformed this piece of history into a renewed call for action. It deserves to be rediscovered.