Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

In Praise of the Longform Documentary

There is simply no narrative form that is quite as effective as an extended video or film exploration of a complex person or trend.

Our heads are now and too often cast down to small screens so we can read even smaller messages.  Sometimes it seems like we are spending our time looking at the equivalents of fortune cookie aphorisms.

We can do so much better.  The technology is there.  We just have to show an interest.

One of the more recent advances in our media is not particularly “digital” at all; it’s the rebirth of the longform documentary focusing on important histories and cultural trends.  It’s not an overstatement to note that the culture changed after CNN broadcast Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 83-minute documentary, Blackfish  in 2013.  More viewed it when it was distributed as a feature by Magnolia Pictures. Once people saw the trailer  they were drawn to the film.  Cowperthwaite put the issue of animal abuse front and center at the moment when the topic was at a cultural tipping point.

The prime advantage of most documentaries  are that they are inviting entry points into an important narrative. The subject could be popular a single musician, a saga about one family, or our financial system.  Diverse subjects have been explored with sensitivities to the people whose dreams have been realized or dashed by mostly systemic pressures that are not visible in shorter narratives.  Most are personal; documentary filmmakers understand that their focus needs to be on individuals with stories to tell and tough choices to make.  Many have also been trained to structure stories that are coherent even without an off-screen narrator.  That was once a novel mode of working, tried by Frederick Wiseman, which has since become the norm.

The longform documentary is sometimes still used by PBS, though they are often more enthusiastic about non-confrontational elements in the natural world.  And CBS once had a crack documentary unit headed up by Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, now just a distant memory, but recalled in the feature-length docudrama, Good night and Good Luck (2002).  Now it is mostly the larger streaming services and cable services that buy and schedule hard-hitting documentaries.  HBO, Showtime and Netflix are examples. To be sure, financing documentaries and selling them is still a rugged and difficult process for a filmmaker, even though shooting can now be done using more economical digital equipment.  We can thank a handful of dedicated professionals who have persevered–Alex Gibney, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Ken Burns, Michael Moore–among many others.

Here are a few favorites that are generally available for streaming and found with a simple Google search:

Working and Workers

  • American Factory (2019)
  • Roger and Me (1989)
  • The Last Truck (2009)
  • Last Train Home (2009)
  • Harlan County USA (1976)


  • Jazz
  • Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019)
  • Seymour: An Introduction (2015)
  • 20 feet from Stardom (2013)
  • Glen Campbell, I’ll be Me (2014)
  • Moon Over Broadway (1997)
  • The Last Waltz (1976)
  • Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened (2016)
  • Woman of Heart and Mind (2003)

Politics, Culture and Society

  • Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
  • The Inventor (2019)
  • Alive Inside  (2010)
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
  • Man on a Wire (2008)
  • The Fog of War (2003)
  • Sound and Fury (2000)
  • Hearts and Minds (1974)
  • An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
  • Gasland (2010)
  • Fyre (2019)
  • The War Room (1993)

There is simply no narrative form that is quite as effective as a well-made 90-minute exploration of a topic.  We are lucky that the form has never been more accessible.

Nihilism Unbound

The authors call them “chaos voters.”

Watch enough You tube videos of Britons willingly severing ties with their European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into disrupting common political norms, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems?  In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.

The research paper “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies” is the work of Danes Michael Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, along with  Kevin Arceneaux at Temple University. The paper’s thesis is that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters in western democracies.  This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms.  While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them.  The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:

  • I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.

  • I think society should be burned to the ground.

  • When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”

  • We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.

  • Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions.  But nearly half did.  The authors call these folks “chaos voters,” who are ready to ignore the benchmarks and norms of a civil society.  Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.

The question remains as to whether these democratic stalwarts will right themselves after having been steered onto dangerous shoals.

And it’s not just the United States. As we have noted, part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s purge of  20 MPs in his own party, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was an unprecedented act in recent British history.  This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his inflexibility on a Brexit withdrawal date, has left the British leader with no governing majority: a fact made worse by the House of Commons reluctance to trust him to conduct a fair election.

Fault the “leave” campaign for hobbling the once powerful colonial power.  And forget the empire where “the sun never sets.”  A slim majority has begun to isolate the former powerhouse of Europe.  The nativism of mostly rural and older Britons now seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.

American nativism is playing out in much the same way, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends.  Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are becoming hard-pressed to find enough service workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.

In different ways the yellow jackets of France are another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture.  Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.

France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture their nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies.  Neither are even close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major.

The question remains whether Britain and the United States will right themselves after falling victim to unsteady hands that have steered them onto dangerous shoals.