Tribeca Review: Outrage

Kirby Dick’s ‘Outrage,’ a documentary that outs closeted politicians, has been one of the hot titles at the Tribeca Film Festival.
By  · Published on May 2nd, 2009

Kirby Dick imbues his movies with sheer populist rage. He turned that anger on the Motion Picture Association of America and their arbitrary, bean counting ratings system in This Film is Not Yet Rated, giving voice to an issue long championed by many of us film critics. Now, in Outrage, he turns to the hypocritical spectacle of closeted gay politicians coping with their buried homosexuality by developing rigidly anti-gay voting records. It’s a worthy subject for a screed, the impact of which is enhanced by Dick’s crucial decision to keep off-camera, thereby rejecting the flawed solipsistic notion of the filmmaker as a crusader for injustice promulgated by Michael Moore.

Instead, the director shines his spotlight squarely on the real men and women combating the discriminatory legislation that so frequently pours out of Washington. Among the more compelling figures profiled are Mike Rogers, a D.C. blogger devoted to dishing about closeted politicos, Sirius radio host Michelangelo Signorile and more obvious figures like U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and Jim McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey. Collectively, the talking head subjects paint a picture of a federal government awash in a culture that prefers hypocrisy to honesty. It’s a place in which the requirements of pollsters and parties, as well as the perception, fostered by the right wing of the electorate, of pervasive anti-gay sentiment force the creation of a manufactured family values identity that best serves no one.

That perceptive exploration of the deep-rooted, fundamental problems of culture preoccupied with the perfect “American” brand provides the heart of Outrage, but it won’t account for most of the ticket sales. Rather, the picture has become a news sensation this week thanks primarily to the speculation over which conservatives the filmmaker has pulled forth from the closet and how strong of a case he’s made against them. Generally, he compiles convincing evidence of, at the very least, strong strains of bisexuality. Also, the venture never feels as icky as it might initially seem because of the strong case made that homophobic voting records can actually destroy lives.

At risk of giving away all of the film’s “surprises,” it should be noted that the central figure therein is Charlie Crist, currently the married governor of Florida but long dogged by rumors of his homosexuality. Dick systematically reveals the denials and cover-ups that accompanied an investigation into Crist’s relationship with a young male staffer of Katherine Harris while he emphatically explores the litany of anti-gay offenses in the governor’s record, including his support for Florida’s only state in the nation ban on gay adoption. His depiction serves as a template for the treatment the filmmaker bestows on his other subjects. Alternately enraged and sympathetic, he shows us men closeted by their own specific failings and the collective ones endemic to society at large.

The movie works best when it forgoes the simplistically delineated us vs. them modus operandi to focus on its deeper exploration of the very complex, timely subject at hand. The filmmaker benefits no one when he engages in his tawdrier inclinations. The telling of the story of former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, he of the famous bathroom stall foot tapping incident, best exemplifies the twinned approach Dick employs. After commencing things with the audio tapes of Craig’s arrest played over the opening credits, the filmmaker quickly segues into a very detailed, front and center on-camera recollection shared by a former liaison, describing their hookup in brutally frank detail. Later, a reporter from Craig’s hometown of Boise describes the profound history of anti-gay rhetoric and imagery in the Idaho popular press, showing an editorial from the senator’s boyhood that decried the sinfulness of homosexual leanings. He uses it to openly consider the severe repression that must be intrinsic to the cognitive makeup of a gay man reared in that world, and to, without forgiving Craig’s legislative misdeeds, empathize with the challenge of such a struggle.

The latter approach applies thoughtful introspection to the material and refuses to view it as a cut and dry case of big, bad villains picking on the little people. The former technique trades in uncomfortably sensationalized muckraking. When Dick mines the rich psychological minefield of the deep, dark contradictory world of behind the scenes Washington D.C., he successfully evokes the universal truths of the importance of living an honest, open life. Despite its fulfillment of the important principle underwriting the film, that those who make the law be exposed to it, the act of watching the filmmaker expose politicians leaves a far less substantive impact once the lights come up.

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