“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
These powerful words spoken by feminist icon Gloria Steinem belie both the sense of fervor she had for bringing about great change and the seemingly empty theater into which that fuel is poured three decades later. Steinem is the latest (after John, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy) in Director Peter Kunhardt‘s In His/Her Own Words series, and she strikes a sharp figure especially when grouped with those politicians. Kunhardt is more than capable of covering the subject after his experience with all things Americana, but the result (while completely fine) is a fairly flat, by-the-numbers documentary that seems only to educate even without presenting new information.
It’s fitting that Gloria: In Her Own Words would stand on Steinem’s shoulders. Kunhardt gets out of the way to let her tell her story, filling in the gaps with vibrant archival footage that ranges in emotional quality from outraged verbal stones tossed at the activist to an endearing interview where Steinem tap dances while Barbara Walters sings. Her life is a dynamic one featuring a career as a journalist, an undercover stint as a Playboy Club Bunny, and as the most visible face of a massive political and cultural movement. To that end, it’s fairly easy to see why she (as subject matter) commands a story.
As a study in how documentaries are made, this is a strong example. It gets every note right, and it does it to a fault. It’s a slicker, more well-funded example of something that would play in a history classroom, which is definitely a worthwhile pursuit. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately good without ever reaching greatness. Interesting, but not overly so. Steinem is a compelling figure who, no matter how you perceive her, is dated, and that feeling hangs heavy here.
That’s not to say that her message or the resistance she endured aren’t inspirational. There are notes of her early family life and its impact on her that give a human face and fragility to a woman whom otherwise might appear to have the skin of a rhinoceros. She plunged ahead as one of the faces of the Women’s Movement despite responses of apathy, eye-rolling, misunderstanding, and later outrage. What Kunhardt gets exactly right is to give Steinem a forum to reflect on those moments in her life – to celebrate the joys, mourn the losses, and to place into context her real feelings on the history that evolved because of and in spite of her actions.
In that way, it becomes a living memoir that can be enjoyed without a reading lamp. At the age of 76 (at the time of filming), Steinem is as eloquent and keen as ever, and some of the best footage comes with the simplicity of listening to her frame American history while lounging in what looks like her own home.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the film, and it’s perfectly enjoyable, but it fails to make much of an impact. In some ways, it feels like a vanity project that happens to come from a historical titan instead of a figure who doesn’t really deserve it. That’s due in part to a one-sided filmmaking style that comes from a lack of opposition on the other end. There are plenty of people who sound like raving morons, but they’re all safely tucked away in the 1970s and 80s. Either Kunhardt and company didn’t search for a modern-day talking head who would criticize Steinem or none volunteered. With all of the enemies jailed firmly in a past of grainy video footage, there’s little in the way of external drama. It’s a good thing, then, that there’s so many internal fireworks.
This is the kind of calm look that people who have been turned into mascots deserve to get, but it comes off a bit too tepid most of the time. It’s like looking at an explosion happening 20 miles away from behind 3 feet of protective glass while wearing protective gear. It’s entrancing, but it does nothing to get the blood moving.
In other words, the truth here is set free, but it doesn’t even try to piss you off.
Gloria: In Her Own Words premieres tonight (8/15) on HBO at 9pm EST/PST.