Parallels between the controversial self-styled doctor John R. Brinkley and Donald Trump pop up with startling frequency throughout Penny Lane’s lively Nuts!, which opens just under a century ago, as Brinkley is starting to treat impotence by surgically implanting goat gonads in men’s testicular sacs. That and other Brinkley “cures” soon become wildly popular as Brinkley masters the most promising new media of his time, broadcasting a call-in show from a powerful radio station that he built so he could counsel callers nationwide about their sexual problems and prescribe treatments.
Not only did Brinkley use the media to burnish his brand and hawk things of dubious value at a pumped-up price, but he ran for political office (governor of Kansas) on a disjointed, faux-populist platform that included far-fetched promises, like pledging to build a lake in every county in the state. And when a powerful enemy began to debunk his lies, he fought back by with racist smears. But Lane has her eyes on a larger prize than merely debunking Trump. She wants us to recognize the impulses in ourselves that make us vulnerable to charlatans like Brinkley, so we can inoculate ourselves against their appeal.
Lane commences by telling Brinkley’s life story the way he did himself, basing the first two-thirds or so of the documentary on an authorized biography that Brinkley published early in his career. A few of the “facts” contained in this classic poor-boy-makes-good narrative seem far-fetched, but most are easy to take at face value, or bolstered by “evidence” like news stories in which men praise Brinkley for having cured them of erectile dysfunction and hold up the babies they say they fathered as a result.
Lane, who demonstrated her gift for mining archival material for gems in 2013’s Our Nixon, strings together telling incidents and anecdotes with a light touch. A couple of contemporary experts offer perspective now and then in short talking-head segments, and Brinkley, his devoted wife, Minnie, and their son, John III, are seen in home movies, posing in the opulent garden of their Texas mansion or vacationing in the Galapagos Islands, where father and son brandish rifles beside tragically trusting animals.
But the story is told predominantly through animation. That allows for a kinetic interpretation of the voiceover narration and the voice-acted scenes from Brinkley’s book, like when the small Kansas town where the Brinkley family first settled down grows before our eyes as the narrator explains how it thrived under Brinkley’s entrepreneurship. It also makes possible visual winks like the goats that pop up like Waldo throughout the film, giving Brinkley’s story an antic undertone that suits its slightly fabulous spirit.
The first part of the film even has a good old-fashioned villain: Morris Fishbein, head of the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA), who was on a jihad against fraudulent practitioners and saw Brinkley as “the apotheosis of quackery.” But the film shifts perspectives when—in another classically Trump-ian move—Brinkley sues Fishbein for libel. The AMA’s lawyer and expert witnesses become the heroes as they methodically deflate a wilting Brinkley, deftly dismantling lie after lie.
Seven separate sets of animators worked on the film, so the style of the drawings changes constantly, growing moodier as Brinkley’s dark side emerges. The final and most poignant scene starts with Brinkley’s adult son playing a vinyl disk his now-disgraced and deceased father recorded for him. As the defeated son listens to advice, like “always tell the truth and get your money honestly,” that his father never followed himself, the hollowness we now hear so clearly in Brinkley’s words is both laughable and terribly sad.