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Rob Edelman: Hot Docs

These days, I scan the titles and subjects of newly-released films and either shrug my shoulders out of disinterest or shake my head in frustration. Too many of the films I’ve been seeing are, well, disappointing-- and these are the better ones. Way too often, they are mind-numbingly awful. In some cases, they are intellectually vapid. More often than not, however, they simply are not at all entertaining.

One major exception here are documentaries. So many new documentaries not only are diverting, but they deal with subjects that are timely and provocative. For this reason, it is understandable that so few of them are screened in the mall cinemas, if they indeed even earn theatrical releases.

A SINNER IN MECCA, which I’ve already cited, is a prime example of a new documentary that massages the mind. Another is MERCHANTS OF DOUBT, directed by Robert Kenner. MERCHANTS OF DOUBT is a clever, perceptive expose of the spin doctors who show up in the media and manipulate an otherwise uncritical media by presenting themselves as so-called “experts” in their fields. Or they represent the various groups that allegedly are grassroots in nature but in fact are controlled by corporations and legislators whose bottom lines take precedence over the public good.

These “experts” will claim, for example, that using tobacco products has no impact whatsoever on one’s health and that climate change and global warming are fabrications. The purpose here is to muddle the truth, to create a dispute where there is no dispute and summarily confuse an uncritical American public that will willingly embrace escapism over reality.

Interviews and archival footage are woven into the film. Included in the latter are so-called Fox News “journalists” asking kid-glove questions to so-called “authorities.” Can any thinking person really believe that Fox News is indeed “America’s newsroom,” and that “We report, you decide” is an accurate description of their coverage?

Another documentary is directly related to one of the most lauded Hollywood films of recent years. That film is ARGO, and the new film is OUR MAN IN TEHRAN, directed by Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein. OUR MAN IN TEHRAN records the history surrounding the growing rift in the late 1970s between Iranian clerics who were more committed to their faith and their countrymen who were more westernized; the eventual fall of the iron-willed, U.S.-supported Shah of Iran, whose secret police were torturing Iranian dissidents; and the hows and whys of what led to the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November, 1979, at which point dozens of embassy staffers were taken hostage.

The “man” of the film’s title is Kenneth Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who spearheaded the hiding of several U.S. embassy staffers and their eventual escape to freedom. Among those interviewed are Taylor and other Canadian officials, White House officials, CIA operatives, journalists, historians and, perhaps most significantly, William Daugherty, one of the hostages.

OUR MAN IN TEHRAN is a history lesson come to life as it offers insight into the era and its politics and personalities. The film recounts a situation in which political posturing took precedence over logic, with disastrous results. And it is a textbook example of how a new regime can come to power and offer great hope for democracy and human rights but ends up being just as oppressive as the regime it replaced. Early on in OUR MAN IN TEHRAN, we are reminded of the gravity of the story being told when one of the interviewees observes: “This wasn’t a movie. This was real life.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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