Skip to main content

Rhetorical Questioning: An Academic View of Political Documentaries

By Betsy McLane

The Rhetoric of the New Political Documentary
Edited by Thomas W. Benson and Brian J. Snee
Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale 2008
226 pages


In one sense, the title says it all. The Rhetoric of the New Political Documentary is a classic university press publication, in this case written by scholars who are based in the discipline of rhetorical inquiry. None of the 11 contributors are best known for their work in cinema studies, despite the complimentary back cover blurb by documentary academic extraordinaire Michael Renov. Another tip-off to its raison d'être is its $35.00 price tag.  Such publications are notoriously pricey and generally aimed at a very specialized readership.

That said, The Rhetoric of the New Political Documentary contains some well-considered nuggets of information and opinion that make it worth perusing for those who make and watch "political documentaries." The authors define the political documentary in very narrow terms. They include only films that relate directly to elections, government policies, etc.-what was once called "civics." 

Each of the eight essays, including the broad introduction by the two editors, must be considered individually. One of the most interesting is Martin J. Medford's "Theology, Politics and the Evangelical Base: George W. Bush: Faith in the White House." This film, by David W. Balsiger, apparently received wide distribution among Christian evangelicals, and the essay analyzes it as "a message designed to communicate a set of meanings to a particular audience and for a specific purpose." Its purpose, according to the author, is to create an overt link in the minds of evangelicals to the notion that George Bush is truly one of their own, a born-again Christian soldier, and that his actions as president are taken according to Biblical instruction. The film came from Grizzly Adams Productions, which amassed its fortune producing the TV series of the same name, and which has since produced widely for Christian causes. It is fascinating to read this examination of a film, seen by millions, but existing out of the public and the documentary mainstreams. It is even more fascinating that author Medford identifies himself as a Christian Evangelical, which he does not reveal until late in the essay.

Three of the other essays hone in on Robert Greenwald and his provocative muckraking: Unprecedented, Uncovered: The War in Iraq and Outfoxed. The last of these offers a compare-and-contrast analysis of Greenwald's guerilla techniques with those only slightly more slick tactics of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. Even if one knows the immense and powerful media octopus that is News Corp, Ronald V. Bettig and Jeanne Lynn Hall's enumeration of its worldwide holdings is enough to create a shudder. Robert E. Terrill's "Mimesis and Miscarriage in Unprecedented" presents the most obvious arguments in the most obtuse academic prose of the lot.

Michael Moore is given his due in Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Trevor Giles' "Virtual Realism and the Limits of Commodified Dissent in Fahrenheit 9/11," which they consider as advancing two arguments, "both explicitly and enthymematically," (the latter of these two words incidentally, does not appear as an adjective in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.). This essay, at 38 pages and with 90 footnotes, almost ties Terrill's essay, which has 91.

I appreciate footnotes, but I found numbers of them in this book to be self-referential and heavily reliant on earlier analyses rather than original sources. Despite the alarming quantity of footnotes, very few filmmakers are quoted directly. There is also a very disturbing tendency to footnote blogs, which resist fact-checking with their inherent ephemerality (a word that does exist in the aformentioned dictionary--but not in Microsoft Word's spell-check function). The Gileses also use a confusing definition of "virtual reality" that seems inappropriate in that they simply mean that documentaries offer alternative versions of reality, not that they employ virtual reality technology.

Jennifer L. Borda continues the examination of Michael Moore in "Documentary Dialectics or Dogmatism? Fahrenheit 9/11, Celsius 41.11 and the New Politics of Documentary Film." She concludes that both films "situate their appeals in the realm of affect rather than argument, attack rather than discourse." I think most audiences instinctively know this without the gloss of dialectics.

I cannot in good conscience fault the efforts of these scholars in applying traditional academic techniques to documentaries. In doing so they legitimize documentary study within the (small "a") academy, and they meet the soul-draining, publish-or-perish criteria that academe requires. They are hard and conscientious workers, aiming only for a tiny audience.

I also learned some interesting personal things: (1) My own working definition of rhetoric is here validated. (2) As a sometime professor, I am in good company using my middle initial and/or name. (3) I am a "failed academic" for the same good reasons that my personal rock-god, Nick Lowe, is "A Failed Christian."


Betsy A. McLane is the author, with Jack C. Ellis, of A New History of Documentary Film.  She can be reached via