Synopsis: Examines how a US value system built on the extreme masculine ideals of money, power and control has glorified individualism, institutionalized inequality, and undermined the ability of most Americans to achieve the American Dream.
Stars: Linda Darling-Hammond, Nicholas Kristof, Libby Schaaf, Ruby De Tie
Director: Jen Siebel Newsom
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I don’t want to assume anything about you, dear reader, but I’m getting to the point where I have to brace myself before I turn on the news or pull up social media because it seems like every day there’s something to argue about. I suppose it’s fitting that in a year filled with pretty much every kind of setback that can possibly occur for the population of this country, a movie like The Great American Lie can be released and hold up a striking mirror to it all. Though it can’t explain away the natural disasters that are ravaging the coastal areas or the virus keeping us all locked away inside our homes these past seven months, director Jen Siebel Newsom’s documentary does examine how years of disregard for social reform and a focus on individual advancement has left huge sections of the American people behind.
In her previous films, including the excellent MissRepresentation, Siebel Newsom took an in depth look at the way gender plays an influential role in the media and stereotypes and she approaches uncovering the truths in The Great American Lie from a similar vantage point. Treating the principals of wealth and influence as the inherently masculine models of success they’ve become over time, she moves through this exploration by leveraging a hearty supply of interviews with noted historians, culturists, and business analysts. Interwoven into these bullet-pointed presentations of the decline of the community in favor of personal gain are Siebel Newsom’s following of real-life working class citizens who are representative of the points she is trying to illustrate.
It’s always going to be more invigorating to watch people function in their daily lives over a bunch of talking heads and that’s definitely the case in The Great American Lie. The sheer volume of people the director has gathered becomes overwhelming and for a film that runs a little over 90 minutes, did we honestly need someone to appear onscreen once to state a fact and then disappear? It’s as if the director didn’t know how to edit down everything she wanted to get in or couldn’t find a way to illustrate the information in another way; by the end you’ve had so many names, faces, and facts tossed at you that it tends to become a blur. While the details never drill down so far as to feel like you’re back in school and the stats are likely nothing you aren’t aware of already, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded that it hasn’t been all that long since America was segregated and had laws that were even more discriminatory to the poor and working-class.
The good news is that between these interviews are intriguing subjects, chief among them Ruby De Tie, a principal working in the Oakland district at an underfunded school with mostly minority students. Growing up knowing the impact that education and teachers had on her, she recognizes the opportunity she has to make the lives of her students better just by showing up every day and keeping the lights on. The entire documentary could have been about her and I would have been just fine with that; her sections of the film are so engaging and lively, bringing a different energy than the other stories involving a laid-off family man working in a dying steel town (who mysteriously still wants to vote for Donald Trump even though he can give no real reason why), and a church-going suburban mom learning that she benefits from privilege in the most 2020 way imaginable.
Interesting to note that Siebel Newsom is the wife of California Governor Gavin Newsom – he does make a brief appearance (one of those that pop in and pop out quickly) and the film obviously keels more the left. As it rounds the corner toward summation it can’t help but look to the future and what has been set into motion with the current administration. Yes, the film has an agenda and isn’t shy about it but at the same time it’s not accusatory or judgmental to the citizens out there in society that pay their taxes, work 12-hour shifts, expect their elected officials to make laws that improve their way of living, and love their families just as much as the next person. That’s the biggest truth told in The Great American Lie….we’re all in this together.