Vintage doc tells sad tale of pioneering labor struggle

Poster for The Wobblies

By Richard Ades

“There is power, there is power in a band of working men…” (Lyrics from “There Is Power in a Union” by Joe Hill)

Though unions have had a few recent victories in their efforts to unionize companies such as Amazon and Starbucks, they’ve long since passed their heyday. So maybe it’s the right time to re-release The Wobblies, a 1979 documentary about one of the labor movement’s early champions.

The homespun flick tells the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union that sought to unite and represent unskilled workers in the early 20th century. Such laborers made up an increasingly important segment of the work force in an American economy that was once agrarian but was fast becoming industrialized.

Whether they were installing bolts on an assembly line or sawing down trees in the Pacific Northwest, the doc states, they were prime targets for exploitation from corporations whose only loyalty was to their stockholders. That is, until the IWW (nicknamed “the Wobblies”) began organizing and fighting back.

Directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer recount the union’s struggles with the help of vintage film footage and interviews with a host of aging former members. Supplying the musical accompaniment are a variety of folksy protest songs, by Joe Hill and others, that IWW members sang to keep their spirits up when things got tough.

And make no mistake about it. Things did get tough, as corporations fought back against the IWW with propaganda, arrests and even outright violence. But the union also got tough, responding not only with strikes but with sabotage and, occasionally, with violence of its own.

Spoiler alert: This old film about an even older struggle does not have a happy ending. Even so, many will find The Wobblies educational and inspiring, as it shows what a few determined people can accomplish when they refuse to kowtow to threats, public opinion or the status quo. It’s a lesson that bears repeating—often.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Wobblies (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning May 31.  

The ‘hippie millionaire’ who (briefly) took the country by storm

This poster depicts Michael Brody Jr. and his wife, Renee, as they appeared in 1970.

By Richard Ades

Dear Mr. Brody documents the story of a wealthy young man who captured the country’s attention in 1970 by promising to give away cash to all who needed it.

Michael Brody Jr. was the little-known heir to a margarine dynasty when he suddenly appeared on the national scene with his young bride, Renee, in tow. With his guitar, long hair and talk of peace and love, he made an immediate impression as the “hippie millionaire.” He even landed a recording contract and was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.

More importantly, he inspired thousands of people to queue up outside his Scarsdale home and Manhattan office in search of the promised handouts. Thousands of others simply wrote to him of their needs, which were often dire.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the phenomenon ended due to Brody’s increasingly bizarre behavior and apparent inability to follow through on his promises. The new documentary, written and directed by Keith Maitland, tries to figure out just what happened and what it all means.

It is not a happy story, for multiple reasons.

Due to tragic circumstances mentioned late in the film, Michael Brody himself does not appear except in vintage footage. But the present-day version of Renee does appear, coming across as someone who’s no more together than the lonely 20-year-old who agreed to marry Michael just one day after they met.

Also appearing is Michael and Renee’s grownup son, Michael James Brody III, who seems equally lost. Grossly obese, he lives his life surrounded by memorabilia from his dad’s 15 minutes of fame, including box after box of letters from folks begging the “hippie millionaire” for help.

Those folks, by the way, become as central to the story as the Brody family itself. In fact, it was producer Melissa Robyn Glassman’s discovery of a stash of their unopened letters that led to the film’s being made in the first place.

Many of those letters tell tales of desperation caused by lost jobs, health problems and growing debts. Others mention related problems such as domestic abuse, while still others are from individuals who are simply lonely and want someone to talk to.

Maitland and Glassman bring several of their stories up to date by tracking down the writers and asking them to comment on what they wrote all those decades ago. In one case, a woman is surprised to learn that at the same time she wrote to Brody, her mother also was asking him for help.

Dear Mr. Brody, then, is a devastatingly sad tale with no real villains but with countless victims. Brody himself was the first one, being a well-meaning idealist whose efforts were undermined by his own demons. Renee was another, being led by loneliness into a fraught relationship that still seems to haunt her.

And then there were the thousands of desperate people who begged Brody for help. The fact that they were forced to seek salvation from a complete stranger says much about the society they lived in—which, of course, we still live in today.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Dear Mr. Brody is available from sources such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Vudu and can be seen beginning April 28 on Discovery+.

Documentary dissects Mayor Pete’s historic campaign

Pete Buttigieg takes a selfie that includes a crowd of supporters in a scene from Mayor Pete. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

By Richard Ades

Jesse Moss co-directed Boys State, which was probably the best 2020 documentary that wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Now he’s returned with Mayor Pete, another film that focuses on America’s political system. But while Boys State did so metaphorically, being set at a gathering of teenagers playing at being politicians, the new doc takes the direct approach.

Its subject is Pete Buttigieg, who, before becoming President Biden’s secretary of transportation, was the first openly gay person to run a major campaign for the presidency. Filmed in 2019 and early 2020, the documentary follows the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as he takes his first plunge into the treacherous waters of the national political scene.

Though the result might not be quite as sublime as Moss’s earlier effort, it offers a behind-the-scenes look at a groundbreaking campaign that briefly seemed on the verge of upsetting a host of more-traditional candidates. The film makes it clear that Buttigieg accomplished this feat with help from advisers such as his communications director, Liz Smith, and even his husband, Chasten.

A graduate of Harvard and Oxford who speaks eight languages, as well as a former naval intelligence officer who saw active duty in Afghanistan, Buttigieg stood out from the field of candidates for reasons that went far beyond his sexual orientation. The film shows another difference: His calm and nuanced speeches were a far cry from the average politician’s promises and cliches. “I think you’re the real thing,” a middle-aged woman tells him after an early campaign appearance.

But the film also reveals that Buttigieg’s reluctance to divulge his emotions led some critics to paint him as cold and even robotic. As the first Democratic debate nears and Buttigieg prepares by taking part in practice debates, Smith can be seen pushing him to open up about his feelings. “He’s coming across as a f—ing tin man up there,” she complains, using an expletive that helps to earn the flick its “R” rating.  

Then, right before the debate, news arrives that a South Bend cop has shot and killed a Black man. Buttigieg holds a town meeting and invites residents to air their concerns, but the effort only succeeds in revealing the gulf between him and many members of the Black community. Though he’s later praised for his response to this issue when it inevitably comes up on the debate stage, his lack of minority support continues to dog him throughout the campaign.  

If there’s one element of Mayor Pete that may disappoint political junkies, it’s that it largely ignores the policy positions Buttigieg espoused and argued over with the other candidates. Instead, it focuses on the personal qualities that made him an unusual and historic candidate and will continue to set him apart if he ever decides to once again hit the campaign trail.    

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Mayor Pete (rated R) will premiere Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.

Actor’s colorful life revealed through his own home movies

Val Kilmer as he appears today in Val (Photos courtesy of A24 Distribution, LLC)

By Richard Ades

At the beginning of the biographical documentary Val, Val Kilmer claims he’s “almost been fired” from all his movies. While that corresponds with the actor’s reputation as someone who’s hard to work with, the film ultimately portrays him as someone who may be eccentric and stubborn, but also thoughtful and dedicated to his craft.

Kilmer is also very unlucky, we learn early on, as a 2015 bout with throat cancer has stolen the now-61-year-old actor’s most valuable asset: his voice. Two tracheotomies have left him unable to speak other than croaking out a few words in between gasps of breath. As a result, son Jack Kilmer has been given the task of narrating the story of his father’s life.

Fortunately, the task of illustrating that life has largely been taken care of, as Val Kilmer was an early and eager adopter of home videography. It’s probably no coincidence that first-time directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott previously worked primarily as editors, as their main job here was to pare down what must have been miles of old footage into a coherent documentary. (Tyler Pharo joins them as the flick’s third editor.)

Narrator Jack Kilmer substitutes his voice for the one his father lost to cancer.

For Kilmer fans, or just film fans in general, the result is intriguing. We see Kilmer landing his first professional off-Broadway role after losing the play’s leads to Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. We see him making his mark in 1980s movies such as Willow and Top Gun. We see him filming his own auditions, at one point even firing off live ammunition to show his suitability for an action role.

As Kilmer’s popularity continues to rise in the 1990s, the doc shows him going all out to capture the part he sees as his destiny: rocker Jim Morrison in The Doors. It also shows him suffering through 1995’s Batman Forever, which forced him to wear a heavy bat suit that made it difficult to act or even to move. Not surprisingly, he turned down offers to repeat the iconic role.

Val eventually approaches the perverse attraction of a highway accident scene when it shows Kilmer on the troubled set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. At one point, Kilmer expresses his frustration with the production’s problems by refusing to shut off his own video camera despite director John Frankenheimer’s pleas. Since Frankenheimer inherited the film, along with temperamental star Marlon Brando, from another director who left just days into the shooting, it’s hard to know who deserves our sympathy the most here.

Val Kilmer rehearses as Mark Twain, a part he once had hopes of playing on the big screen.

That’s also true at other points in the documentary, especially when Kilmer complains about his 1996 divorce from actress Joanne Whalley and subsequent separations from their children, Jack and Mercedes. But in general, the actor comes across as a sympathetic figure.

Home movies from Kilmer’s childhood reveal family problems and tragedies that helped to shape him: a distant mother; a father whose business ventures didn’t always pan out; and especially the early loss of his creative younger brother, Wesley. Even more affecting is present-day footage that shows cancer survivor Kilmer being forced to live off his past triumphs by greeting fans at a Tombstone screening and a local Comic-Con.

A couple of quibbles: At times Val could have been organized in a more logical manner, and it never really delivers on Kilmer’s early promise to impart something profound about the craft of acting. Otherwise, the flick is well worth one hour and 49 minutes’ worth of any cinephile’s time.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Val (rated R) opens July 23 at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema. It will be available through Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 6.

Looking for the world’s loneliest whale

Joshua Zeman’s documentary revolves around his search for a renowned but unseen whale that can’t be understood by other whales.

By Richard Ades

As someone who cares about the environment and about those majestic creatures known as whales, I looked forward to watching The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.

The documentary has a fascinating premise: Aided by a group of oceanographers and other scientists, filmmaker Joshua Zeman sets out to find the mysterious whale that’s been dubbed “52,” so named because he sings his song at a frequency of 52 hertz. This separates him from other whales, who sing at various frequencies depending on their species, but never at 52 hertz.   

Whales, especially the males, sing to communicate with other whales that may be many miles away. However, 52’s unique pitch means he’s unable to communicate with anyone, as a result of which he’s been called the loneliest whale in the world.

The beginning of the documentary explains that 52’s existence was discovered years ago with the help of underwater listening devices originally deployed by the U.S. Navy to keep track of potentially hostile submarines. The unseen whale quickly became a source of fascination to people the world over, maybe because he symbolized the isolation many feel in modern society.

Apparently, one of those people was Zeman. So, after spending four years looking into the possibility of finding the illusive 52, he finally gathers a team and sets out to sea to do just that.

It’s at this point that all the film’s exposition begins to pay off—to an extent. Unfortunately, Zeman dilutes the excitement of the resulting “hunt” with more exposition. That is, he intersperses footage of the search for 52 with history lessons on the ways humans have made whales’ lives difficult down through the centuries.

From hunting them to the edge of extinction to polluting the ocean with mechanical noise that frustrates their attempts to communicate, we have not been good neighbors to our fellow mammals. If all this comes as news to you, then these digressions might seem worthwhile. Otherwise, you might wish Zeman had taken a more personal approach to his subject.

For one thing, what drives him to spend years of his life searching for a beast no one has ever seen? And what drives the scientists on his team to devote their entire careers to the ocean? Such topics are left largely unexplored.

At least the documentary satisfies our curiosity about the whale itself by answering questions such as: “Why is he so different from other whales?” And, “Is he really alone?” Before the film is over, we’re even treated to a surprise that wouldn’t be possible in, say, a flick about the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s a welcome moment, even if it doesn’t quite make up for all the lectures that preceded it.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (rated PG) opened July 9 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center. It will be available digitally beginning July 16.

Revisiting the election that broke the mold

James Fletcher’s documentary looks at what Donald Trump did right in 2016—and what Hillary Clinton did wrong.

By Richard Ades

The Accidental President is worth seeing, but the timing of its theatrical release is less than ideal. Does anyone want to see a documentary that rehashes the 2016 presidential race when we’re still trying to put the 2020 election behind us?

But for those willing to give it a try, James Fletcher’s flick is a lively and surprisingly even-handed history lesson that’s sure to provide nuggets of new understanding. Though it mainly relies on talking heads to examine the past, those heads belong to an eclectic and thoughtful group of journalists, commentators, political operatives, a prominent screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and even a cartoonist (Dilbert’s Scott Adams).

Writer/director Fletcher begins his look back with the 2016 primary season, which saw a record number of prominent Republicans vying for the top spot. The sheer volume made it hard for any candidate to stand out—any traditional candidate, that is. While his politically experienced opponents focused on ideas, Trump gained traction by becoming, as former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci puts it, a “human wrecking ball.”

During the GOP debates, Trump targeted other hopefuls with a steady stream of insults and name-calling that kept his face front and center throughout the 24-hour news cycle. In short, the former reality TV star showed he knew how to work the media. While conservatives often claim news outlets have a liberal bias, one interviewee notes that they actually have a “conflict bias.” Thus, the political neophyte was able to garner millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity by creating one juicy kerfuffle after another.

At the same time that he was slaking the media’s thirst for conflict, Trump was stoking the anger many Americans felt over the perception that they’d been left behind by the modern economy. The documentary notes that Sen. Bernie Sanders benefited from some of this same dissatisfaction in his bid for the Democratic nomination, fueling an early lead over Hillary Clinton. It also notes that his fans’ anger was exacerbated when the party’s establishment was suspected of using “super delegates” to give Clinton an unfair advantage in the race.  

Time correspondent Molly Ball is one of several political observers featured in The Accidental President.

Speaking of Clinton, her diehard supporters probably won’t appreciate the section of the film that focuses on what she did wrong after becoming the Democratic candidate. Despite being vastly more qualified than Trump, she hobbled herself by avoiding the press and mostly ignoring the so-called “blue wall” states where Trump ultimately carved out slim leads. (One of them, Wisconsin, was snubbed altogether.) She also made verbal gaffes such as referring to Trump supporters as “deplorables,” thus alienating voters who felt looked down upon by the “coastal elite.”

Of course, Clinton also was handicapped by FBI director James Comey and his controversial decision to raise the issue of her emails yet again during the campaign’s final days. On the other hand, as Time political correspondent Molly Ball suggests, Clinton should have been so far ahead of her inexperienced opponent by that point that such a setback wouldn’t have mattered. In the end, she won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, which was the only vote that mattered.

The Accidental President also brings up other issues that played a role in 2016 and still bear consideration today: Why were Twitter and Trump such a perfect match? Do emotions beat out ideas on the campaign trail? And how was Trump able to weather the “October surprise” that was the Entertainment Tonight tape?

The 2016 race may be long over and Donald Trump may be out of office, but the forces that led to his surprising victory will continue to play a role in politics because they obviously worked. That makes The Accidental President a useful history lesson.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Accidental President (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets and will screen in limited U.S. theaters beginning June 21. It will soon be available on Starz.

Trans athletes fight for the right to compete

Andraya Yearwood is a trans female athlete from Connecticut whose success in track and field events has been cited as evidence by backers of efforts to ban trans girls and women from competing.

By Richard Ades

Mack Beggs has a problem. The Texas teen is an accomplished wrestler, but the state forces him to wrestle girls. That’s because Mack was born a female, and though he’s begun transitioning to male, Texas law requires young athletes to compete in the gender they were assigned at birth.

Mack is one of three teenagers portrayed in Changing the Game, a documentary directed by Mark Barnett that examines the controversial issue of trans athletes in a way that’s compassionate, thoughtful and evenhanded. It’s also comprehensive, as each of the youths lives in a different state, and each state has a different way of dealing with the issue. Also featured are:

• Sarah Rose Huckman, a competitive skier who lives in New Hampshire, which allows trans athletes to compete in their chosen gender, but only if they’ve undergone reassignment surgery.

• Andraya Yearwood, a track athlete who lives in Connecticut, which allows all athletes to compete in their preferred gender regardless of where they are in the reassignment process.

On the surface, Andraya is the most fortunate of the three since her state takes the most liberal attitude. However, the film reveals that law and public opinion don’t always jibe. When the tall and muscular Andraya wins a track victory, her success is marred by critics who feel she has an unfair advantage over her competitors. (In fact, backers of recent Ohio efforts to ban trans female athletes from competing have cited as evidence the success of Andraya and another trans Connecticut track star who also appears in the film.)

Mack Beggs is a trans male wrestler who’s forced to compete with girls due to restrictive Texas laws.

Like the states they live in, the three featured athletes are a study in contrast. Mack is shy and soft-spoken, while Sarah is an outgoing blogger who challenges her state’s trans rules. Finally, Andraya is a fierce competitor on the track but is uncomfortable over the criticism she receives, especially since she has a double-minority status as someone who’s both trans and African American.

Just as fascinating as the athletes themselves are the glimpses we’re given of the family members and friends who surround them. Many of them upend stereotypical expectations.

A case in point: Texas wrestler Mack is being raised by Southern Baptist grandparents who claim they’re as conservative as they come. In fact, grandmother Nancy is a deputy sheriff who owns several guns—and is prepared to use them to defend her grandson against anyone upset by his success on the mat. Meanwhile, grandfather Roy struggles to remember which pronouns to use with his grandson, but he apparently has a firm grasp of why Mack is who he is. “You gotta feel good about yourself,” Roy says.

The lesson seems to be that when someone has a personal connection to a trans person, political dogma and prejudice can’t help giving way to love and acceptance.

Just as impressive as the documentary’s portrayal of the athletes and their families is its depiction of their critics. While some deal in hateful stereotypes, others are more measured and logic-minded.

Those who think Mack shouldn’t be wrestling girls—something with which Mack himself agrees, of course—say his use of testosterone supplements makes it unfair. And people who argue that Andraya shouldn’t be competing with cisgender girls say it makes a mockery of Title IX rules that were designed to level the playing field for female athletes.  

Such criticisms can’t be dismissed as groundless, showing that the issue is far from black and white. Then again, no one who believes in equality can dismiss these trans athletes’ right to be true to who they are and to pursue their dreams just like their cisgender counterparts.

Far from being a clinical study of a hot-button sports issue, Changing the Game is illuminating, heartwarming and inspiring. It deserves a gold medal.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Changing the Game is available on Hulu beginning June 1.

Father’s death prompts dangerous quest for justice

Paul Lima keeps in touch with his team as they plot to capture a killer in After the Murder of Albert Lima. (Photos courtesy of This Is Just a Test Media)


By Richard Ades

After watching the unbearably tense (and now Oscar-nominated) Quo Vadis, Aida?, I was ready for something a bit calmer. Instead, I stumbled onto After the Murder of Albert Lima.

The documentary follows an American named Paul Lima as he heads to Honduras in 2013 to seek out his father’s alleged killer. The man in question, Oral Coleman, has actually been convicted of the crime but remains at large, apparently having bribed enough officials to evade prison.

The murder, by the way, took place 13 years earlier. Since then, Lima has devoted his life to seeking justice, but it appears to be in short supply in the Central American country. As a result, he’s hired bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen to accompany him to the island where the suspect lives.

The plan: Find Coleman, subdue him with drugs and restraints, and turn him over to the proper authorities for delivery to prison. The problem: Coleman is a prosperous businessman/gangster who’s always surrounded by bodyguards and ever-vigilant underlings.

Bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen

Torres, the more assertive of the two bounty hunters, effects an air of self-confidence as he assures Lima that their plan is sound. But even he seems taken aback when he learns how well-protected Coleman is, and how lawless and hazardous life on the island can be. Nevertheless, the three set about gathering the supplies they need for their dangerous mission, including a pair of poorly maintained firearms.

Is Lima setting himself up for the kind of tragic end that befell his father? Are bounty hunters Torres and Korhonen as competent as they claim, or are they in over their heads? Director Aengus James encourages such questions while keeping the dread factor high with help from composer Adam Sanborne’s ominous score.

The only respite comes during interludes that explain why Paul Lima decided to undertake such an insane quest. We come to understand that his need for closure largely overrules his instinct for self-preservation. That’s because his life is stuck in limbo and will remain there unless he succeeds in bringing his father’s killer to justice.  

Like a condensed, real-life version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, After the Murder of Albert Lima blends psychology and suspense in the tale of an obsession that both defines and endangers one man’s life. It’s quite a yarn.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

After the Murder of Albert Lima is available beginning March 18 on Crackle, a free screening service.