What’s most interesting about Patriocracy, a new documentary about America’s seemingly irreconcilable party divide, is that it presents itself as both objective and ardently nonpartisan, though this quality isn’t interesting for the reason the film intends. It claims to be the refreshing, commendable voice of reason in a debate colored by hardcore partisanship, and I suspect its producer and director, Brian Malone, believes his position to be so intrinsically compelling that audience members of any stripe will find themselves persuaded. But what interests me about this conceit is what it ultimately confuses, which is that simply by straining to appear nonpartisan it can state its case objectively. It’s reasonable, though hardly virtuous, for a documentary to reject overtly biased, party-line arguments in favor of clarity and even-handedness, and little in Patriocracy strikes me as deliberately dishonest or unfair. But to presume that even an explicitly neutral political position lacks its own subjective ideological bias is nothing more than a delusion, and not a particularly useful one.
In this case that bias leans tacitly left, but the concessions the film feels obligated to make to the right are bound to prevent it from wholly ingratiating itself with the party’s purists. The film’s oscillating sympathies sometimes yield simple, digestible truths that do seem to genuinely transcend party lines, but for the most part these bids at distanced fairness feel self-conscious and overly calculated, as when former Republican representative Bon Inglis is called upon to essentially testify against the burgeoning extremity of his own party. Because Inglis is a recognized and well-respected Republican, his fall from grace at the hands of militant Tea Party constituents promises the privileged reliability of an inside, unbiased source, a straight scoop that the audience can trust. But Inglis is highlighted for the simple reason that his story is easily reduced and narrativized, and because he signifies without nuance the film’s cautionary warning about political extremes.
At its most agreeable, Patriocracy functions like a relatively straightforward expository essay, and if the reading it offers of American current affairs is strictly cursory, it is at least benign. But the film cannot sustain its casually informative tone for very long, falling instead into extended periods of didacticism and condescension. An overlong sequence in which Malone has a journalism professor deconstruct two news entertainment programs—Keith Olbermann on the left, Sean Hannity on the right—is tedious and entirely unnecessary, and its presence tells us more about the film’s attitude toward its audience than it does about the issues at hand. Patriocracy might consider its purported objectivity something of a public service, a bit of much-needed straight talk in a debated overwhelmed by rhetoric, but what it fails to recognize is that “straight talk” is itself highly rhetorical, no less styled or subjective than what pundits spew nightly. The difference is that Fox News and MSNBC are at least marginally transparent about their political allegiances and ideological biases, which suggests a certain honesty. Patriocracy is desperate to dissociate itself from bias, and it strains so hard to convey objectivity that in the process it’s deceived even itself.