Directors: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Cinematographer: Thorsten Thielow
Editor: Jeff Gilbert
Composer: T. Griffin
Streaming Platform: Apple TV+
In the recently released musical Hamilton, we saw a fiery political rivalry between some of America's Founding Fathers — Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (at times, even James Madison). The three disagreed on the constitution, the economics of their nation as well as its governmental structure. They sowed the seeds for the country's politics by infusing it with the democratic spirit of criticism, argument, and consensus. Bearing a similar throb of America's politics, but in a different century, milieu and context, is the documentary Boys State on Apple TV+. The documentary doesn't deal with high-fashioned, adult jockeying. It is more locally rooted. And as a result, it gives us an intoxicating look at domestic and personal politics.
The film focuses on a youthful facsimile of the American political and campaigning system. In here, we see hundreds of high-school freshmen and seniors (all boys) take part in a week-long 'Texas Boys State' camp where they replicate the country's gubernatorial elections. They are divided into two factions — Federalists and Nationalists. Each party has to fill a certain number of bureaucratic posts and campaign for the coveted position — the Governor of Boys State. These lads don't know each other. And as a result, through vigorous lobbying and canvassing, they need to prove to everyone that their party has the apt gubernatorial candidate. The film's opening credits also show that famed politicians like Bill Clinton, Cory Booker and Dick Cheney took part in this civic camp in their respective states.
Boys State, as a whole, reeks of macho-ness and testosterone (a lot of it has to do with the fact that they are all from Texas). Every third guy in there is a sinewy jock who's most likely the "popular kid" in their high-school. A majority of them are fuming conservatives obsessed with the ideas of freedom, anti-abortion, and pro-guns. Some are closet racists, too. They are the kind of people who can sell a load of baloney with absolute confidence. One of them, with wild conviction, said, "Our masculinity shall not be infringed." It's an uncanny and terrifying look at how grifting politicians actually do behave. The kids, to weasel their way into getting nominated for Governor, even adopt the mannerisms of such politicians. There's the Mussolini-styled, authoritative hand gesturing and the gratuitous chest-thumping (for America), too. It is very worrying.
There's a moment in the documentary that reminded me of a quote from House of Cards — "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy." A gubernatorial candidate and a pro-choice believer, to garner support from a large right-wing battalion, lied about being pro-life in several speeches. While addressing the documentary's silent interviewer, he said that deceit is necessary to climb the political ladder. The quote and his behaviour are all political truisms by now. The mucky and misty nature of this field is common knowledge. But when this came from a 17-year-old, I twitched. This political microcosm of theirs is ravaged with toxic cynicism, and the film, very ably, uncovers that.
The film can come off as a dark satire on American politics. With all the tacky factionalism they show us, it does not feel quite different from The New Yorker's cartoons and caricatures. And this is where the documentary, to quite some extent, becomes interchangeable with reality TV. After being fed a jumbo platter of juvenile madness, this exposé begs the question — is the reality they are showing unmediated? Considering that everyone's a teenager, their carnal lust for power does get theatrical. But to me, Boys State doesn't seem like the kind of documentary that is too concerned about appearing scripted or distorted. It deliberately intends to unfurl this brand of politics with a jaundiced eye, even when it is framed in a deadpan manner.
The documentary, however, eschews all political bias. It does not comment on any ideology whatsoever. The distance it maintains from its subjects allows us to retain an unadulterated view of them. There will be many viewers whose beliefs do align with those of the candidates, and the film does not go out of its way to chastise anyone for that. The only talking heads out here are the encamped teenagers, no third or even second-party. This allows for some complex dissection of their performances in the campaign. Before the Texas Boys State camp begins, we are already let in on some of their lives — we learn that one's a staunch Reaganist, another's an advocate of Bernie Sanders, and that one of them knows his George Orwell and 1984. Through this, we are able to pair their testimonies with some of their campaign and political decisions.
The bravura narrative, by directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, is also what makes Boys State so compelling. For most of the times, the documentary resembles the immersive quality of fiction. It chronicles the four key players in this political conquest — there's the universally admired candidate, an underdog, a sharp-witted aside, and the conflicted but cool contender. Many of them seem like the traditional good and bad guys — and here, it's a war of their words. As the main focus is on the Nationalist party (three out of those four reside here), there's also some natural but unwarranted antagonisation of the Federalists. The directors, very visibly, curate what they want you to see, for the sake of a dramatic story. Ultimately, it is understandable that they don't want to present a dry and dim look at civil discourse.
In the realm of political documentaries, Boys State may just enter the league of Fahrenheit 9/11, Best of Enemies, and Inside Job. Like most of them, this one, too, is a fine exploration of the dark side of American politics (assuming there even is another side to it). And it also feels wickedly relevant right now given that the country is bracing for its upcoming presidential elections.
Boys State initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2020 and is currently streaming on Apple TV+