Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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When Commercials and Political Propaganda Become Indistinguishable

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Images from campaign ads for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Whom amongst us would ever contend that, in documentary filmmaking, the bombastic approach works best? Just a few might accuse Michael Moore of such tendencies, but I think his persona and use of humor often change that equation. I’m less forgiving of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America or Bill Maher’s 2008 film, Religulous. I found both documentaries bull-headed, unfair and therefore largely unpleasant to watch.

Unfortunately, in election season, bombast is the standard. I’d like to think it’s the opposite — democracy at work, and all that — but there’s something so distasteful about being in America during election time. If you look at the ads that both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are putting out, you know that subtlety and finesse have been tossed out the window.

Here’s a sampling of Romney campaign ads:


It’s Just Not Getting Better

American Crossroads: “At Stake”

And here are three ads from the Obama campaign:


Big Bird

Made in Ohio

Is it fair to refer to these little 30- and 60-second ditties as nonfiction filmmaking? That would be an insult to the form. They are in that ugly area between fact, fiction and advocacy — otherwise known as propaganda.

It’s instructive to look at non-political ads as a contrast. I came to this conclusion when I watched two commercials recently, back-to-back, at the gym, and I thought they read just like election ads — even though they were not. Watch them and see what you think:

Doesn’t that Ameriprise commercial read totally like a Romney ad? Tommy Lee Jones just looks like he’s cut from the same cloth as Romney — similar hairline, complexion, and that lining of hayseed Americana. I can almost see Mitt riding on a horse over to Tommy Lee and the two of them having a coffee while leaning on that fence. And then we hear Tommy Lee talking about “not taking the bailout,” which sure sounds like anti-Obama big government messaging. And when he adds that he believes “in a future that is better than today,” well, it sounds like he’s ready for Romney to give it a try.

But, wait, then doesn’t that ad for UCLA’s Extension “Empowered” program starring a medley of Hollywood liberal do-gooders — including Cuba Gooding, James Franco, Sally Field (Norma Rae!) — telling us to “wake up!” read as totally pro-Obama? (“Wake up” is a slogan that feature and doc director Spike Lee, a big Obama supporter, has used in his movies. I do not know who directed the UCLA ad but it smacks of a Spike Lee Joint.) And they remind us with uplifting but empathetic expressions that “this won’t happen magically,” a key subtext to the Obama campaign, which is that he came into the presidency with a country that was half-broken by his predecessors.

Together, I felt the TV speaking to me from each side of the political spectrum. (The Ameriprise ad was directed by renowned documentary director, Errol Morris, by the way.) And as creepy as that was, I so much more appreciated the subtlety of the messaging.

And that was my takeaway: the non-direct message can have so much more staying power than a head-on collision. Not that either campaign would heed such instruction. And they probably understand the American voter a whole lot better than I do.

Too bad that nuance has no place in today’s American political discourse. It’s balls-to-the-wall until November 6.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki