Let us begin with a stipulation: Documentaries, no matter how artful their sheen of objectivity is, are by their very nature biased. And that's okay. We accept that documentary features obtain their relevance because of a singular editorial focus: an argument that must be heard by someone who feels powerfully obliged to make that argument.
We can live with this because documentary artists promise us something in return: toughness. As a viewer, we want to be assured that the people behind the documentary have undertaken an intellectually rigorous effort to assure that their end product isn't weak and naive. We need to be able to accept as a given that the documentary's creators are forthrightly doing battle in the marketplace of ideas, that they understand the necessity of posing a compelling argument, and that they accept the fact that someone could come along the next week and out-argue them.
It's pretty clear that "Under The Gun" -- the Katie Couric executive-produced film that seeks to "[examine] the events and people who have kept the gun debate fierce and the progress slow" -- has failed the test of toughness. This is pretty bad news for people who feel that the gun debate has been fierce and the progress slow!
As you may have heard by now, "Under The Gun" features a scene that's altogether startling in its intellectual dishonesty. About 22 minutes into the movie, in an interview session with members of a gun rights group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Couric poses this question: “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?”
There is nothing untoward, of course, about asking tough questions in interviews -- even ones that are colored by the tinge of "gotcha." Anyone who's watched a Sunday Morning politics show knows that this is basically their stock-in-trade. But when Chuck Todd poses this sort of question on "Meet The Press," the cameras keep rolling, and we watch his interviewee contend with the inquiry.
At this moment in "Under The Gun," it appears as if the documentarians' cameras do the same -- capturing the members of this group silent, perplexed, and unable to respond to the inquiry.
But here's an exciting twist: It turns out that this is all bullshit!
Raw audio, provided by the Virginia Citizens Defense League to the Washington Free Beacon's Stephen Gutowski, reveals that what happened in that moment is not the damning, embarrassing silence that the documentary depicts. Rather, it reveals that the group immediately attempted to grapple with the question.
As The Washington Post's Erik Wemple chronicles, the filmmakers -- essentially caught red-handed -- have offered up a range of half-hearted apologies and not-to-be believed excuses. Here's "Under The Gun" co-producer and director Stephanie Soechtig:
There are a wide range of views expressed in the film. My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans’ opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way.
So, let me get this straight. The filmmakers actively sought out a "range of views." Then they actively decided, for whatever reason, that it might be nice for viewers "to have a moment to consider this important question." And then, I guess the documentarians' cameras and editing bay became self-aware somehow, seizing control of the production and fashioning a false moment from this exchange. Soechtig, suddenly and strangely suggesting that she has only intermittent agency over her own creation, says that she "never intended to make anyone look bad." Sure hope she's able to finger the real culprit, then!
This shift, between active and passive, is proof enough that the documentarians failed to meet the toughness standard. But here is where I'm puzzled: Why did the filmmakers seek out these people's opinions if they never intended to include them? There are a multitude of ways to present the idea that the "gun debate" has been "fierce and the progress slow." These filmmakers chose to take their argument to the Virginia Citizens Defense League. It was their decision to get into the arena. And then it was their decision to erase the competition that they had enjoined.
I can't speak to the filmmakers' mindset. You can listen to the interview for yourself, and be just as perplexed as me about why this exchange was deemed to be not fit for inclusion, or why it shook the foundations of their premise so badly. Understanding that you are going to be confronted with an argument that might not support your thesis -- and with which you may have to grapple with to continue -- is the sort of thing you're supposed to steel yourself for before you make a documentary. You don't reveal truths or win debates by erasing other ideas from memory.
The end result here is a documentary that does a great disservice to its audience, arming viewers with the false assurance that a tough question didn't receive an answer, when in fact it did. This film's audience has been denied the opportunity to wrestle with those answers -- a promise the film explicitly makes when it shows Couric engaging with the members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League in the first place. The filmmakers' weaknesses have been thus passed along to their viewers.
If you invite an argument, contend with the argument. The end.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.