Access. The one thing that Frederick Wiseman's new documentary, State Legislature, shows you is that access can take a humdrum bit of reporting and make it sizzle.
If the prospect of sitting through four hours of footage of Idaho's Legislature makes you want to fluff up the couch pillows for a good nap, think again. This documentary, which got rave reviews from Variety and Le Monde, shows that Idahoans think long and hard about how they make our laws, even if the ones they make aren't what you'd like.
Over the course of the long session of 2004, Wiseman and his camera crews became as much a part of the Capitol scene as the lobbyists, politicians and reporters who stalk the halls daily. Over time, apparently, many of those regular inhabitants got so used to the cameras that they let down their guards.
So we get wonderfully candid moments, like when Dan Popkey, columnist for the Idaho Statesman, tells former lawmaker Ken Robinson about the "poor editorial judgment" his paper exhibited in choosing where to run a story about phone deregulation.
Likewise we see Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes, a Soda Springs Republican, sitting down with a Senate clerk to dig through law books to find out just how he could usurp the authority of a committee chairwoman to get a measure passed. And we get to see Geddes and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a Burley Republican, sit down with two lobbyists in a quiet moment to talk about how they'll get a bill heard in order to save some political face.
"For me, the drama lies in the commonness of the issues, in the ordinariness of the people called on to resolve them, and the seriousness with which they accept the responsibility for participating in decisions that affect all aspects of our lives," said Wiseman in a prepared statement. "State Legislature is, in my view, a reflection of contemporary American life and both an illustration of and metaphor for the democratic process."
The issues of the session will be familiar to anyone who followed that year's session: From video voyeurism and mad cow disease to immigration and gay marriage, lawmakers dealt with a number of hot topics.
Nonetheless, the lack of direction or pacing—it's Wiseman's style to not narrate or do anything other than splice together the raw visuals in a way that is compelling—leaves viewers to dig through lots of hay before they find the needle.
In this case the needle belongs to Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who has the finest scene in the film.
The setting is a committee hearing about the licensing of contractors. Davis sits impassively on the dais, then calls anti-tax activist Laird Maxwell to the podium to testify. Davis has clearly run out of patience with Maxwell and proceeds to skewer him through a series of machine-gun questions, wherein he reveals that no, Maxwell would rather the state didn't license any profession at all, whether it's schoolteachers, architects or physicians. Instead of the hard-charging ideology that he usually presents, Maxwell looks like a misbehaving student getting hauled out onto the carpet by a teacher who's had enough.
"I see you have only one issue," Davis says to Maxwell.
When Maxwell begins to respond, Davis cuts him off.
"I'll ask the questions. You give the answers," Davis barks.
So it goes. Rattling off a list of Idaho occupations that are licensed, and asking Maxwell for yes-or-no answers about whether or not they should indeed be licensed by the state, Davis shows just how ludicrous it might be if Idaho were run by an ideologue like Maxwell, rather than by careful and humane architects of state code. Maxwell does, at one point, try to explain his answers, saying, "These, again, are just off the top of my head."
"Oh, sure," Davis says, dismissively. (Davis was recently passed over as a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Gerald Schroeder. The judiciary review panel should have watched this documentary to get a real insight into how he might have worked from the bench.)
There are missed opportunities. Rep. Lenore Barrett shows up almost two hours into the movie, and she doesn't make any of the outrageous statements she's so good at making. It was like watching someone get poorly cast; Barrett is passionate about her issues, and that's why she keeps getting re-elected, but she also has a tart way with words. I wonder what they left on the cutting-room floor.
It's tempting to suggest this needs to be watched to catch all the great moments. But the interesting thing might be to watch it as an outsider, as someone who doesn't know much about Idaho's legislative process. Doing so might be painful, but it would be illuminating in a way that a visit to the Capitol in person might never be.
Airs June 13, 8 p.m., Channel 4.