Friday, October 9, 2009

Movie Review: Documentary spotlights Kansas politics

Based on Thomas Frank’s best-selling political book on the socio-political conflicts, contrasts and contradictions of his home state, Joe Winston’s "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” explores how real people live, work, think and vote in Oklahoma’s neighbor to the north. While it addresses clearly the fractures in Kansas’ body politic, it is the rare political documentary in which no one is labeled the enemy, leaving it up to the viewer to reach a conclusion.Frank’s 2004 book, named for a famous 1896 political column in the Emporia Gazette, covered the rise of conservatism in Kansas, a state that was ground zero for 19th-century, left-wing populist politics, but beginning with the presidential election of 1968, it has been one of the most reliably conservative states in the Midwest. One of Frank’s main points is that conservatives in Kansas are mostly working or middle-class citizens voting against their economic self-interest out of their support of the Republican Party’s stand on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and creationism.

But using Frank’s book as a jumping-off point, director Winston takes a less strident view of the state. It would be possible to watch Winston’s "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” from either extreme on the political bell curve and see it as a plain-spoken depiction of life as it is. Liberal populists such as farmer Donn Teske have their view of the demise of their livelihood at the hands of conservative economic policies, but then fellow farmer Angel Dillard, a conservative Christian, sees only good coming from conservatism and mostly evil coming from liberalism.

How the viewer sees "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” could serve as a Rorschach test of their own leanings. In this sense, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is an unusually straightforward documentary in these times: There’s no agitprop, no snarky use of public-domain education films from the ’50s or a narrative spin in either direction.

Winston takes his cameras to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kan., and gives dispassionate voice to people who believe that Earth was created 6,000 years ago. Again, depending on the viewer, this is likely to elicit a "You’ve got to be kidding” or an "Amen” — Winston is just depicting Kansas attitudes as they are. But the film recognizes that Kansas politics is not monolithic: Winston trains his cameras on a Republican watch party on Nov. 7, 2006, and while the supporters of Rep. Todd Tiahrt saw the 4th District Republican congressman sail to easy victory, they also saw a Democratic victory in the state’s attorney general race, and the shift of both national legislative bodies to Democratic control. One young Republican, looking for an explanation, claims his party cannot get out the vote as well as the other side, but that is a claim made by both parties of their opponents.

"What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is unlikely to change anyone’s mind, but it feels like the truth. No one on either side is treated like a caricature, and that in the current social and political environment, a wind blowing right down the middle of the plains can be a refreshing breeze.

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