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The 5 most essential documentaries to watch before the election

Any major election year is going to bring forth a wave of political documentaries, but this year has seen a deluge of films tied to, inspired by, or meant to influence one of the biggest presidential races in history. We’ve got documentaries about the candidates, documentaries about the issues, and plenty more that are non-specific to the Biden-vs.-Trump battle and are just riding the wave.

While the competition for the White House is surely the most notable part of this year’s election, coupled with the general clashes of the two-party system from local to national governments, the most important subject of this year’s elections is voting itself. And it’s a topic that should matter to any Americans at any time because voting rights and voter suppression, as well as election integrity, are evergreen, bipartisan matters.

Ahead of the 2020 election, you may want to see a documentary about why one presidential candidate or another is unfit for office, or you might enjoy one of the multiple docs showcasing teenagers playing politics. You might even feel inclined to check out the latest from Dinesh D’Souza, whether it’s because you’re on his side or you’re just curious about any rare occasion of a conservative-leaning documentary.

But these are the five documentary films you need to see before Election Day.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

The most accessible of this year’s feature films on voting issues, All In: The Fight for Democracy is a broad and breezy look at the history of voter suppression in America, and the continuing struggle for voting rights. Ultimately concentrated on modern problems and what they mean for the near future, the film also provides a primer on the gains and regressions of Black Americans since the founding of the nation, as well as advancements for women and, more recently, a boost followed by a blow for convicted felons.

Present concerns covered include everything from voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and long lines at and consolidation of polling locations to faulty and hackable voting machines, redistricting practices like gerrymandering, and the unlikelihood of rampant voter fraud and the fear-mongering claims that mail-in ballots could compromise the election. All In concludes as a PSA for viewers directly instructing them to make sure they’re set up for a successful voting experience and wary of any potential obstacles.

Although directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa Cortes (The Apollo) and two-time Emmy-winning and two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), the doc’s most significant name behind the scenes is Stacey Abrams, who is one of the producers of All In as well as its most prominent talking head (though her “very angry” former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, is the most memorable, particularly for the moment when she suddenly makes it no longer a family-friendly film). Much of the doc is also about Abrams, how she became a politician, and why her bid for the governorship of the state of Georgia in 2018 was a monumental occasion for a couple of reasons.

The negative reason is the one that receives the majority of attention in the doc as elsewhere. Abrams lost the election to Brian Kemp, whose narrow victory has been in the spotlight almost as much as Donald Trump’s presidential win two years prior. The fact that Kemp had been Georgia’s Secretary of State and therefore was responsible for overseeing his own election was scrutinized from the start, and his seemingly corrupt win has been made an example of.

As a film, All In clearly takes a biased approach to the wide range of issues related to electoral integrity, and unfortunately that makes it a hard-sell to a large percentage of the population. Threats to the democratic process in any form should be of interest to all Americans. However, it’s not really a politically partisan documentary so much as it’s simply against disenfranchisement, and well, wherever the shoe allegedly fits…

All In: The Fight for Democracy is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections

In 2006, as electronic voting machines were becoming the norm and problems were already being regularly reported, HBO released the feature documentary Hacking Democracy, which focuses on issues with computerized election tools. The central figures in the Emmy-winning film are the leaders of a nonprofit election watchdog group called Black Box Voting, but the breakout star of the doc is Finnish computer security expert Harri Hursti. He even became famous for his hack of a Diebold voting machine, as depicted in the film.

The new film Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections promotes Hursti to the role of a primary character for another investigation into the integrity of electronic voting machines. Like Hacking Democracy, the new doc is made by filmmakers Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels, and Sarah Teale, but it’s not necessarily a sequel or even a spinoff, and the previous documentary doesn’t need to be seen in order to follow the new one. Where pertinent, however, Kill Chain does show clips from Hacking Democracy.

Most of the voting machines used in the last few noteworthy elections are the same kind as were available when Hacking Democracy was produced. The only difference is that there has been an increase in the attention to and concern about electronic voting, if not also an increase in actual problems and more reasons to be concerned over the last decade and a half. Also, government authorities have, in recent years, been more on the defense, including in congressional hearings, about electronic voting machines being safe from cyberattacks because they’re allegedly not connected to the internet.

Kill Chain follows Hursti as he demonstrates how officials are mistaken, if not outright lying, in their claims. He explains and shows the multiple ways the machines that are used today are vulnerable to attack, and that also includes external storage devices employed for the transfer of information as an alternative to network transmission. He also proves how easy it is to purchase machines on eBay, still with data from the 2016 election, then proceeds to dissect and explore all the ways one of these machines could be hacked.

The film also covers Hursti’s participation in the Vote Hacking Village event at the 2019 DEF CON Hacking Conference, where attendees were invited to play around with and discover vulnerabilities in various machines in current use. One hacker reveals how easily polling locations could be unknowingly infiltrated by an undetected and anonymous drive-by attack, perhaps in order to quickly shut down machines if not manipulate their data. It’s a sequence that plays rather humorously until you think about how scary it actually is.

Hursti is also shown in Georgia during the 2018 election that resulted in the controversy over the governor race between Kemp and Abrams. Even without the specific concern of the time, Georgia has long been at the forefront of the evolution of voting machines, having been the first state to use computer tally machines in 1964 and the first to fully adopt direct recording electronic voting machines in 2002 (they also got all new machines in 2020), so it’s a place worthy of monitoring by Hursti. What happens there can set a precedent for others corruption-wise as much as tech-wise.

Kill Chain isn’t strictly about the ways in which voting machines are susceptible to attack, though, as the film acknowledges that the more likely strike from hackers would be on voter registration websites and voter roll databases, which are definitely connected to the internet. As is laid out in All In, any manner of keeping certain people from voting is just as if not more effective than messing with the ballots themselves. And as is seen in the next film on this list, disrupting the voter rather than the vote may be all that is necessary, depending on the goal.

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections is streaming on HBO Max, HBO Go, HBO Now, and Kanopy, and is available for rental through various digital VOD platforms.

Agents of Chaos

The four-hour documentary Agents of Chaos is … a lot. Presented in two parts, the film focuses its first half on potential and certain Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and its second half on the possibility that Donald Trump and/or his campaign worked in collusion with Russians involved in such interference. It’s a film that is inescapably convoluted, beginning its story in the Ukraine during the 2013 protests and involving everything from the invasion of Crimea and a Russian “troll farm” to the Steele dossier (aka the revelation of possible blackmail material on Trump) and the findings of the Mueller Report.

Fortunately, Agents of Chaos is directed by Alex Gibney, the prolific documentarian who has previously helped viewers understand Scientology, the Enron scandal, and most recently the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most relevant to Agents of Chaos, Gibney has also made documentaries about WikiLeaks, Russian oligarchs, and, with the criminally under-seen Zero Days, a specific yet broadly illuminating and frightening look at cyber-warfare. Still, as well-suited as Gibney and his team are for Agents of Chaos, they definitely have their hands full with its contents, and it’s likely to overwhelm much of its audience.

One of the points of the film, though, is to illustrate how overwhelming the interference was and may continue to be. The most interesting aspect of the story is how the Russians took a multi-pronged approach to meddling with the American electoral system and maybe didn’t even hack or manipulate as much as they could have because, ultimately, they didn’t need to. Agents of Chaos raises the notion that the most effective attack is hacking not computers but society. Through their campaigns of deception and misinformation and their ultimate aim for further discordance among the American people, Russian trolls may have done more damage than any direct physical or digital hit could or might have.

Gibney similarly throws everything at the wall in documentaries like Agents of Chaos, but not in a way that disorients to the point of confusion. He’s a rare filmmaker with enough clout to garner interviews with figures like Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russian media outlet RT, Felix Sater, the Russian-American mobster with real estate business ties to Trump, and Carter Page, the Trump campaign foreign-policy advisor who allegedly helped coordinate collusion between Trump and Russia, all of whom provide personal denials and/or their own sides of the story. Yet Gibney’s reporting and narration may weigh heavily against their input, and ultimately he gets to have the last word.

Agents of Chaos is streaming on HBO Max, HBO Go, and HBO Now.

Slay the Dragon

Even without Russians meddling in American elections, the democratic system of the United States has been susceptible to domestic attacks for centuries by way of an accepted, legal, and really, essential practice. The drawing and redrawing of electoral district boundaries is necessary in order to properly represent the people, in balanced numbers, because of population changes and shifts over time. The process itself is not the same as the notorious practice known as gerrymandering, a term which applies specifically to the exploitation of redistricting for the benefit of particular politicians or political parties.

Since this isn’t a new concept, nor is it a widely addressed issue specific to recent elections when other worrisome matters have been at play, now isn’t the time for a feature-length primer on gerrymandering. For that, we already received the informative and simply titled documentary Gerrymandering a decade ago. But you can find brief and basic explanations of gerrymandering in docs about voter suppression — including All In — as well as in Slay the Dragon, which is entirely focused on gerrymandering while going deeper into pressing matters.

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) and longtime collaborator and former Frontline researcher Chris Durrance, the film follows a trio of stories, the most significant of which is the examination of REDMAP, a blatant yet legitimate project of Republican leaders begun in 2010 to strategically, with help from computer software, redraw districts in a number of states to help their party win local and national elections through the past decade (and probably in the one to come). Of course, to the benefit of both REDMAP and general gerrymandering in the long run, the project hasn’t led to a runaway GOP domination and so isn’t viewed as a problem.

Another story in Slay the Dragon concludes with a more explicit rejection of the cause for alarm regarding gerrymandering: the lawsuit of Gill v. Whitford, which pertained to partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. The U.S. Supreme Court decidedly recused themselves of deciding on the issue on a federal level.

The third story in the film is more positive, more relevant to the coming election for at least a few states and also more politically balanced. It follows the movement to create amendments to state constitutions transferring redistricting powers to a bipartisan commission. This part of the documentary is fascinating particularly for how it shares a look at a mostly unknown campaign but it’s also especially compelling due to its focus on Voters Not Politicians founder Katie Fahey, who is a fantastic character whose screen presence shows promise for her future.

Slay the Dragon is a curious example of a documentary that really seems intent on being impartial, which would benefit an issue that deals with a fundamentally politically neutral concept such as gerrymandering — Democrats have exploited the practice as well, on occasion — but which winds up unavoidably condemning one party more than the other just as a matter of fact. Once again, if the shoe, or the dragon’s claw, fits…

Slay the Dragon is streaming on Hulu and is available to rent from major VOD platforms.

537 Votes

Lastly, here’s a documentary that takes us back in time 20 years to the first instance in modern history — or at least, in recent memory — where the integrity of the American electoral process seemed to be in serious jeopardy. Billy Corben’s 537 Votes revisits the story of the 2000 presidential election and how Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court became the deciding factors in the victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore. As Corben is the king of the Miami-focused documentary (he’s best known for Cocaine Cowboys series of films), his latest actually centers specifically on the significance of that one Florida city and its county rather than the whole state.

To do this, Corben begins with the controversy over the fate of Elián González, the five-year-old Cuban boy who was discovered off the coast of Florida in the fall of 1999, one year before the presidential election. The story of González became a national sensation through the spring of 2000, when the boy was delivered to his father in Cuba, because he became the subject of a political dispute regarding whether he deserved to stay in America. The U.S. government’s handling of the ordeal may have had a detrimental effect on Gore’s popularity with Cuban-Americans in Miami.

However, some of that disfavor was also the result of manipulation by the Republican party through the media, especially the influential local Spanish radio, with involvement from none other than the infamous political consultant Roger Stone.

Of course, the film also covers the more widely known aspects of the election’s problems in Florida, including the voting machine snafus with their “hanging chads,” the Republican-orchestrated protests over the ballot recount, the bias of then Governor Jeb Bush (brother of the GOP candidate) and more importantly then Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and finally the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision halting the recount and allowing for George W. Bush to receive Florida’s 25 electoral votes tipping him to victory.

Although 537 Votes mainly provides a history lesson of what happened and how and why it happened, history lessons are meant to help us avoid repeating our mistakes as much as they’re also nostalgic entertainments — and this being a Billy Corben film, there’s plenty of cultural memory infused in the montage of clips to service the latter and appeal to a more mainstream audience, particularly one that recalls the events at hand. What the documentary should do for the present, however, is remind its audience of the importance of everyone voting and making sure your vote counts.

The story retold in 537 Votes also might be used to support the arguments in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, since those 25 electoral votes were what the 2000 election came down to, rather than the individual ballots cast by the populace of either the state of Florida or the whole of the nation. And the debate over the Electoral College has heated up again in anticipation of the 2020 presidential election and will surely continue afterward depending on how the divide between popular vote and electoral vote winds up this time.

537 Votes will premiere on HBO and HBO Max on Oct. 21.


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