Sundance 2024: Reality Bites
This article appeared in the February 2, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our Sundance 2024 coverage here.
War Game (Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, 2024)
As of three days ago, solitary confinement is banned in New York City jails. That cruel system of plunging incarcerated individuals into isolation was pioneered only about 95 miles from NYC in 1829, at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The architects who designed the institution believed that silence and solitude would move inmates closer to penitence, and therefore to God—an idea that visitors like Charles Dickens balked at.
Eastern State is now a museum on the history of mass incarceration in America (featuring an audio tour voiced by none other than Steve Buscemi). Last November, I visited an installation there that invited attendees to send themselves three digital postcards with reflections from the museum tour, to be delivered via email two months, 10 months, and two years later. I received my first postcard last week. I had written: “Imprisonment is an entirely constructed system for dealing with transgressions, based on the philosophies of select individuals, yet it has been universalized and normalized as inevitable.”
The NYC bill and my letter to myself from the Eastern State Penitentiary punctuated a thought that had been running through my mind since I saw the inaugural episode of a new HBO documentary series, God Save Texas, on my second morning at Sundance. Inspired by a book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, the anthology invites three filmmakers—Richard Linklater, Alex Stapleton, and Iliana Sosa—to visit their Texas hometowns and paint a personal portrait of the state’s complex political history. The first episode, directed by Linklater, is titled “Hometown Prison.” A disarmingly intimate look at the ways in which the massive prison complex in Huntsville, where Linklater grew up, has shaped his family and community, the episode delivers a striking thesis: that even in the Bible Belt—among devout Christians who believe that punishment is decreed by God—it is evident that prisons are hubristic institutions created wilfully by man.
Linklater’s episode focuses on the death penalty in particular. The Huntsville Unit, which has seven prisons that house a quarter of the city’s population, has executed 586 individuals since capital punishment was reinstated in Texas in 1982. Linklater’s entry into this narrative is startlingly confessional. Early in the episode, we see grainy footage shot by the director in 2003 outside the state prison—just down the hill from where he went to school—as an inmate awaits lethal injection inside, and protestors gather outside, hoping for a last-minute presidential stay of execution. Linklater says in the voiceover that at the time, he had hoped to make a film about two high-school football players—one who ends up in prison and another who works there—but he couldn’t get the project funded. He follows this thread of diaristic reflection throughout: as we find out, his mom used to volunteer at the prison; one of his stepfathers was incarcerated and another was a warden; and a football teammate was traumatized by the time he served for financial crimes—and by how much worse it was for the Black and brown youth imprisoned alongside him. This is not a work of journalism or investigation, but a memoir, and it is all the more powerful for being so, revealing the far reach of the American prison system in the life of a director we’ve come to know as the maker of limpid romances and comedies.
Evading discussions of electoral politics in favor of more humanistic conversations, God Save Texas: Hometown Prison has something of a bipartisan spirit, though it’s not as glib as an appeal for all of us to simply get along. Rather, it’s a plea to not let only the letter of the law decide for us what is moral or immoral. On the other hand, Special Screenings selection War Game is an explicit call for across-the-aisle bipartisanship. Directed by Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, the film documents a simulation exercise organized by VetVoice, an advocacy nonprofit led by military veterans. (It is one of two movies documenting political simulations that Moss premiered at this year’s festival; the other title was Girls State, directed by him and Amanda McBaine, in a follow-up to 2020’s Boys State.) Imagining a scenario in which the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots recur in 2025, and this time with rogue members of the military involved, VetVoice mount a six-hour, gamified exercise in which former U.S. government officials recreate a Situation Room—complete with a fake president who has won the election by a narrow margin, a rabble-rousing loser in denial, and a pretend militia that cannily deploys misinformation.
A group of game designers ferry information between the insurgents and the government to see what political solutions a president may explore during such a crisis—and whether or not the chief executive will invoke the Insurrection Act, which essentially initiates a state of emergency, empowering the military to carry out domestic law enforcement. The cinematography follows the schematics of a mockumentary, or even reality television—close-ups of the Situation Room are accompanied by a score that reinforces tick-tock urgency, and talking-head interviews with participants give insight into the life experiences and concerns that inspired them to get involved. (A recurring theme: the need to protect the military’s sacred nonpartisanship, now threatened by white-supremacist extremism.) The tone is alarmist from the get-go; every now and then, stills from the January 6 attack pop up in sinister black and white, as zombies might do in a different kind of movie.
But War Game fails in interrogating the very premise of the exercise that the directors were invited to film. A firm belief in American exceptionalism frames the entire project, as does a vision of the military as an institution whose intrinsic moral purity must be preserved. This means that the participants’ concerns about the red-pilling of soldiers or the damage that the Insurrection Act might do to the republic inspire little reflection on the legitimacy of an armed force that wields excessive power, and has been deployed often to quash rebellions abroad. Neither does the fake militia prompt questions about the differences between people power and toxic populism in a democracy. The documentarians never take a step back from their subjects’ views, so the overall effect is one of a promotional video for VetVoice—a disappointment, given the film’s titular similarity to Peter Watkins’s visionary The War Game (1966), one of the great works of speculative nonfiction.
A Sundance documentary that does take the wide view—to incredibly moving ends—is Union, directed by Brett Story and Stephen Maing. One of the most tenderly shot and edited films at the festival, it offers an account of the Amazon Labor Union’s journey to collectivize workers at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island. Chris Smalls—the president of ALU, whom you may know from the viral clip of him thanking Jeff Bezos for going to space—figures as a kind of protagonist, leading the charge after being fired for protesting the laxness of safety protocols during the pandemic. But the strength of the film is its close attention to the group effort that successful labor organizing requires, especially when it takes on a behemoth like Amazon. The camera hovers close to Smalls and several other organizers in their makeshift tents outside the warehouse, where they try to engage passing workers with offers of free pizza and, in one cheeky instance, weed. Meanwhile, within the building, shaky phone footage captures the union-busting sessions hosted by the company, led by professionals who are paid $2,000 a day.
How does one move toward a goal that is monumental in its own right, but a drop in the ocean of labor struggles against massive corporations? And how does one build people power across the chasms of race, class, and gender? Story and Maing walk an extraordinary tightrope, inviting us to experience the thrill of building solidarity while also refusing to turn away from its frustrations: the arc of the film, which goes from early 2021 to the ALU’s election win (after many challenges) at JFK8 in April 2022, explores the conflicts that emerge as some within the group lose trust in the leadership, or find that their voices are not sufficiently represented. To fight one of the most well-funded and ideologically ingrained systems—corporate capitalism—with measly grassroots resources requires great faith and radical optimism. If Union feels somewhat incomplete—the JFK8 victory is followed by short scenes of struggles at other Amazon sites across the country, both successes and failures, and fractures within the ALU—it’s because it is rooted in a stirring recognition that sometimes we must strive for a better world even if we don’t have a perfect alternative in place. A horizontal motif runs through the film, with tableaux of large freight ships slowly moving across New York’s rivers, or folks queuing up for jobs or union cards, driving home this slow and steady progress. We must keep moving forward, even when the destination is not yet within reach.