Four important documentary series are premiering this weekend in rapid succession over four different networks and streaming platforms. Some are political, some are entertaining, and some are cautionary tales. But they all share in common the chase, or the pursuit, for more.
Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI
A flashy, well-produced look at the relationship of presidents over the years with the rule of law. It’s framed around the very real threat Donald Trump has created in his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the potential Constitutional crisis the United States is slowly finding itself in, and tells of previous times the U.S. has come close to such moments. It does so in the first episode with President Nixon and the Watergate scandal, and in the second with President Reagan and the Iran-Contra mess.
The show does a fantastic job of laying out the situation in each case for those who may not be in the know, telling the story in a smart and layered way with extensive collections of audio and video footage of the time and splicing in first-hand and expert accounts to fill in the blanks. The look at abuse of power and how lies always float to the surface is fascinating in how it takes time, but investigations almost always surface what was going on in the shadows. It’s a slick production produced by documentarian Alex Gibney (who directs the fourth episode about Trump), never taking its eye off its goal of showing how easy it is for the rules to be bent, and how the law of the land always finds a way to come back around. It’s an exposure to the moves and the cover-ups, and with prominent talking heads from administrations, the FBI, and journalists, the show does excellent work in laying out the facts and providing a clear view of the scandals. It asks the right questions and gives its answers in a clear tone which mirrors the present.
Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime. Two out of four episodes were reviewed.
The Gymkhana Files
The Gymkhana Files is a behind the scenes look at the immense work going into intense stunt racing. At its heart is Ken Block, professional rally driver and all-around madman as he attempts to top the stunts in his Gymkhana series of videos which have become internet sensations. It’s a documentary about his team and their style, how each minute detail is planned and filmed just right so every frame is caught perfectly in the impossibly beautiful stunts and tricks Block pulls off in each car.
There is a kinetic energy and excitement to its very nature, reflected in the stunts pulled off on screen and the way in which it’s told. It’s all about getting the perfect shot as something extraordinary or cool is happening with Block’s maneuvers and tests, and how each member of the team helps to achieve exactly what’s needed to capture it. There’s drama as weather, altitude, and stress threaten each work, running against the clock and permits to get exactly what’s needed for Gymkhana 10, their next major release. Even for someone without any or much interest in cars, there’s a gripping nature to the story and the beautiful imagery which leaves you wanting to see if Block can push the car that little bit more, and if the crew can capture it just right. It’s fantastic and well worth watching.
The Gymkhana Files streams on Amazon’s Prime Video on Friday, November 16th. Four of the eight episodes were provided for review.
The Clinton Affair
For something played out in the media for years, and then replayed out yet again in the 2016 election, it can be difficult going into The Clinton Affair with the hope of gleaning something new from it. What it does instead is smartly place the humanity of its flawed subject at the forefront. It’s told with a large wealth of perspectives coming at the topic and its many intricacies, but it’s in the central interview of Monica Lewinsky narrating various moments and giving her own context to what happened where the series really gains its appeal and importance.
A lot of the major players offer their view of a presidency under attack from every angle, the knives out in the dark looking for their target and moving in when opportunity presents itself. It’s with this view comes the nature of Bill Clinton’s affairs and how they were weaponized by his enemies, but in doing so, it still manages to hold on the idea of power, and how abuse of power with the concept of sex is a very real concept. Through those close to the President and Lewinsky, and including Lewinsky herself, the show is able to give an intimate look at how the relationship played out, and how the aftermath ballooned and became something else entirely. While it does end up lacking in making a larger comment on the ramifications of fishing expedition investigations and abuse of power on several layers and through several people, it does remember to keep it personal and smaller, to focus on the people in the larger scale of the presidency of the United States.
The Clinton Affair airs on A&E in two-hour blocks over three nights starting Sunday, November 18th at 9pm ET. Four of the six episodes were provided for review.
JONESTOWN: Terror in the Jungle
The story of the Peoples Temple and the tragic events in Guyana are forever immortalized by the horrific aerial shots of the mass poisoning and aftermath of Jim Jones’ Jonestown. But in the Sundance TV documentary, it painstakingly traces the step by step movements of Jones’ own movement, from inception to indoctrination to making believers out of his captive audience. There’s a level of carefulness and precision to its storytelling, using survivors and those who managed to escape Jones’ hold, giving voice to how it all came to get to such a nightmarish point.
It’s harrowing but never nihilistic in its outlook, presenting you with clips of Jones’ sermons and giving the narrative of how a man with a need for attention ups his game and his push for commitment for his followers to see how far they are willing to go in their need to believe. It’s in the beatings, the secret informing, and the cruel tests where the documentary series is its most fascinating, but it continues to deliver a shocking view of the disintegration of a man and his followers as he promised a Promised Land but inevitably brought death. It’s effectively told in archived audio and tasteful re-enactment while survivors and defectors lay the groundwork for how it all came to be. Timed to the 40th anniversary, it’s a powerful reminder of the cult of personality, and how one man’s promises can lead to devastation and ruin when followed with such conviction.
JONESTOWN: Terror in the Jungle airs on SundanceTV over two nights, Saturday, November 17th and Sunday, November 18th, starting 9pm ET both nights. The entire series was provided for review.