As the opening credits come up on Kimberly Reed’s powerful new documentary, we see shots of the remarkable beauty of the natural landscape of Montana juxtaposed with startling images of the human and environmental devastation produced by mining and petroleum companies’ aggressive and essentially unregulated extraction practices. Reed here shows us in microcosm what we stand to lose as a nation if corporate and industrial power is left unchecked. Juxtapositions like this form the structure of the film that ensues, which alternates between the hopeful and the deeply discouraging as Reed pursues her thesis: Untraceable “dark money” political campaign contributions and the corruption that they foster constitute a grave threat to American democracy. A documentary on this subject, while essential, could easily become a tedious screed, of interest only to policy wonks and activists. Reed, however, finds the humanity and the drama in her subject, creating a clear, compelling, and surprisingly even-handed case that citizen vigilance is more important now than it has been in decades.
What does it mean to say that a film is, in whole or in part, about America or, indeed, “America”? Perhaps more than most mediums, cinema has provided a whole range of examples and styles from which to draw from and examine; to name just a few wildly disparate examples: The Searchers, Dogville, Paris, Texas. This tendency, of course, should be distinguished from films that are about a specific aspect of American life, culture, or society: films like Rio Bravo or Trust, while expansive in their own way, don’t appear to attempt to dissect the idea of America.
What does distinguish a film about America is a certain sense of scope, or a focus upon a part of America that is at once universal within the land and (usually) concentrated to a certain milieu. The film in question doesn’t need to announce itself as attempting this task; rather, it (by necessity) almost always emerges organically out of the visual and thematic fabric of the film.
One such example of this phenomenon is Wanda, the sole feature film written and directed by Barbara Loden, otherwise known as a theatrical and movie actress, frequently for Elia Kazan. In narrative terms, it is a deceptively simple film: Wanda (played by Loden herself) is a woman living in impoverished circumstances in the coal mining regions of eastern Pennsylvania. Near the beginning of the film, she divorces her husband, acquiescing with a startling lack of resistance – one of her key traits throughout the film – to her now ex-husband’s wishes, willingly relinquishing her two young children. She then meets the tempestuous, tetchy petty criminal Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who takes her away from the bar that he has just robbed. The rest of the film follows this odd, often abusive relationship, as they meander through the state until Mr. Dennis attempts to enact a half-baked bank robbery.