Paste film editor Michael Dunaway was at Sundance last week. Here’s a round-up of just some of the documentaries he saw.
Eugene Jarecki is an enormously talented and fiercely intelligent documentarian, a great candidate for the job of creating a film to capture the multifaceted, enigmatic figure of Ronald Wilson Reagan. But Jarecki, who won Sundance in 2005 for Why We Fight and returns to the non-competition Documentary Premieres program here, comes close but doesn’t quite close the deal. The first half of the film is masterful and fascinating, as he explores the early life experiences that shaped Reagan. But once Reagan enters politics, the nuance of the film is lost and it becomes one long diatribe against his policies. Even the moments where Reagan inarguably shined, like his return from the assassination attempt, are undercut by too-clever-by-half song choices. It’s a shame, because Jarecki has done so much good work in the first half of the film that could have informed the second half. Still, even a half-miss from Jarecki is worth seeing.
Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times
Director Andrew Rossi happened upon a fascinating year to take a look at The New York Times, between the Wikileaks stories breaking, the “End of Combat Troops in Iraq” story, and the full flareup of the “Is The New York Times Dying?” controversy, fueled by a brutal round of layoffs. But I suppose when you’re The Times, every year is facsinating. Rossi’s work here is crisp and quick-moving, transforming the newsroom, an environment that is surprisingly prosaic in real life, into a hotbed of intrigue. And he gives a host of experts time and space to explore fundamental issues of the future of journalism in a depth that’s usually not delved into outside conference panels. He also makes a no-brainer choice in concentrating on superstar journalist David Carr, whose salty demeanor and syntax, as well as his fierce defense of the indispensability of the Times, provide a character more compelling than any the a narrative writer could have dreamed up. One publication put him in a line with Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence as the latest in the last few years’ Sundance ingenues, and he certainly was the hit of the festival. This one’s certain to get theatrical distribution, so seek it out at the multiplex soon.
Tiffany Shlain’s father was a renowned surgeon and best-selling author whose theories about mass societal shifts between left-brained and right-brained thinking, masculine and feminine energy, analytical and holistic worldviews challenged conventional orthodoxy. She continued her father’s iconoclastic ways, creating the Webby awards, creating great documentary films that made extensive and effective use of pastiche and collage, and becoming one of Newsweek’s “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” When she began designing a film that would be a collaboration, she had no idea that her father would become ill shortly after they began filming. The film changed, and quickly. What began as an academic exploration became the most personal of journeys for Shlain, and what would have been simply an intellectually stimulating film became a wonderfully moving one as well. Connected has been one of the truly thrilling experiences of this year’s Sundance, and easily the best documentary in competition.