The Tea Party is not in great shape these days. In the wake of last month’s government shutdown, national pollsters found that their unfavorable rating was the worst in their four-year history. In the always rushed world of politics, it seems as if their moment has passed. Yet good journalism isn’t rushed, and neither are good documentaries. Jamila Wignot and Sierra Pettengill’s new film, Town Hall, examines the rise and fall of this brand of Republican insurgency by concentrating on the real people who gave it their support.
The focus is Berks County, Pennsylvania, beginning in the year 2009. Katy Abram was one of many Americans who attended town hall meetings with their elected officials on the subject of health reform, but she’s one of the few whose words became an instant sensation. She proclaimed her fear of “turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country,” and told Senator Arlen Specter that he and the Democrats had “awakened the sleeping giant.” Both praised and ridiculed in the media, she was launched into politics, devoting her time to organizing in the build-up to the 2010 midterm elections. After the Republican sweep that November, she accepted a position with the Koch Brothers-funded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
Wignot and Pettengill focus on Abram and one other activist, Berks County Tea Party chairman John Stahl. Town Hall is a long-term study, charting the lives of these two impassioned Americans through the excitement of 2010 and the subsequent failures of 2012. Yet this is not a film about the validity or even the influence of the individual positions taken by Tea Party supporters. Its interest lays primarily in the psychology and the humanity of its subjects.
Stahl has been involved in politics for years, but he has been given a second wind by this new revitalization of the Republican Party. His perspective has a lot to do with his experience watching the city of Reading decline over time. As he explains it, the city has suffered because progressive government has driven out moneymakers, and neighborhoods have filled up with illegal immigrants, most of whom do not know how to keep up their homes. He’s much closer to the stereotypical idea of the Tea Party activist, with unfortunate racial opinions and an inconsistent position on government programs, like his aging mother’s Medicare.
Abram, on the other hand, arrived at conservative politics more recently. She explains that she was a liberal until she got married and started listening to more of her husband’s favorite talk radio shows. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are a constant presence now, along with Fox News. Her emotional and intellectual awakening was born in this particular shade of American media, with all of its various assumptions. Yet the freshness of her own transformation has made her open-minded, which becomes most apparent when she visits a meeting of Occupy Harrisburg. Ostensibly there to spy, she ends up recognizing that the left-wing radicals have a lot of her own concerns. She may object to their methods and their ideology, but this crucial moment drives home the point that the gulfs of American politics are only as wide as we make them.
That said, Town Hall is at its best when emphasizing the way that the Tea Party and the right wing have isolated themselves from the rest of the country. Wignot and Pettengill choose to use a number of the clips they’ve taken from Fox News or conservative talk radio as a soundtrack, matching the audio with images of Berks County homes. The prevalence of this media, often a news vacuum that operates with an entirely separate set of facts. When the final act of the 2012 presidential election comes, everyone in the audience knows what will happen. Yet Abram and Stahl are convinced, along with many pundits, that Romney will blow Obama out of the water. Their final disappointment is a tragedy of misinformation.
The dominant narrative of the Tea Party has been one of ignorance, a fire stoked by videos such as the one that made Abrams famous. And while it is true that Russia is in fact no longer a socialist country, it’s also true that the media whirlwind that exploded into her life was at least partially exploitative and unfair. Town Hall does not take positions on any of the actual Tea Party platform, to the extent that such a thing even exists. It doesn’t comment on Americans for Prosperity’s Koch Brothers connections, either. It’s a film that looks at the arc of the Tea Party as a human tragedy of communication and information, perhaps the only way to keep everyone’s dignity intact.
Town Hall screened Sunday night at DOC NYC and will show again this evening. Check the fest’s website for more info.