Split-subject documentaries are challenging. You start off thinking you’re following different people on a parallel course, and then one or two change direction or turn out to be boring and your whole thematic mission is spoiled. And even if you stick to your plan, audience reception becomes its own thing; Rachel Lears’ Netflix doc Knock Down the House is, on a practical level, the story of a quartet of progressive women running for Congress in 2018, but from its Sundance premiere on, it has consistently and exclusively been referred to as the “AOC documentary.”
At the very least, I think if you watch Knock Down the House with a stopwatch, it’s close to an even four-hander, no matter what stands out for viewers. The same probably is not true of Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme HBO documentary The Swamp. Described as the story of “three renegade Republican Congressmen as they bring libertarian and conservative zeal to champion the President’s call to ‘drain the swamp,'” the final product plays as a showcase for Florida’s Matt Gaetz. It’s no surprise that Gaetz, whose greatest gift seems to be his capacity to absorb media attention, captivated The Swamp‘s editor, and there’s something unquestionably entertaining about his brazen appetite for attention. But it means that The Swamp is only occasionally about the thing it insists that it’s about.
The documentary sets out to focus on Gaetz, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie and Colorado’s Ken Buck over a busy year that started with the opening of the 116th Congress and the aftermath of the midterm “blue wave” and continued through Robert Mueller’s House testimony, the beginning of the Ukraine probe and the impeachment of Donald Trump. The timing puts all three Congressmen in the challenging position of attempting to fulfill Trump’s promises about “draining the swamp” while working within Washington’s swampy parameters to protect Trump and keep him in office.
The filmmakers’ mission is a complicated one: simultaneously articulating a definition for Washington’s “swamp”; trying to explore the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Trump’s mission; pondering whether it’s possible for one to work in the swamp without becoming part of it; and touching on ways that, in a perfect world, the legislative branch could still work.
The documentary’s biggest miss is with Buck, a personality-free snooze of a professional politician pretending he’s not a professional politician. In what should have been an even three-person split of a story, Buck does almost nothing and probably gets less screen time than Ro Khanna, whose pragmatism from the left side of the aisle feels much more sincere than what we get from the Trump acolytes (except that he doesn’t fit with the “drain the swamp thesis” as purely).
Michigan’s Justin Amash, who split off from the Republican Party and became an independent during the timeframe of the documentary, would have been a much more convincing subject, but instead his name is mentioned once, early on, and then never again. Amash, as much as I disagree with his general ideology, is a far less compromised representative of what the documentary theoretically wants to be about.
Massie is better TV than Buck, if only because of how gamely nerdy he is at every turn, whether he’s comparing his Congressional lapel pin to the One Ring from Lord of the Rings — he refers to the pin as “Precious” — or comparing the Capitol to the Death Star, while clutching a Lego x-wing fighter. He describes himself as a “constitutional conservative” and occasionally comes across as at least interestingly disconnected from the current Republican orthodoxy — Trump has been known to not be a fan — and perplexingly conflicted (as sensed in his dedication to green energy and refusal to engage with the directors’ baiting questions about man-made climate change).
The documentary that Massie is in fits well with Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, who gives the outsider perspective on how Newt Gingrich destroyed the ideals of Congress and created the current climate of perpetual fundraising, party-over-ideology prioritizing and bipartisanship-averse governance.
But Matt Gaetz is the main lure, and I’m pretty sure that’s just the way he would want it. A master of viral-means-good self-promotion, Gaetz is a jumble of contradictions. He can sit with Khanna and boast at their similar independent streaks when it comes to things like term limits or gerrymandering, and then engage in his apparently frequent conversations with Trump that conclude with ejaculations like, “You’re the best, Mr. President!” It’s Gaetz’s status as a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mid-priced suit that clearly transfixes the filmmakers, who are constantly trying to trip him up with not-especially-challenging questions like, “If Donald Trump employs more lobbyists than any past president, has he really drained any swamp?”
Gaetz may not have real answers to questions like that, but he never seems to be fazed by anything, whether it’s a constituent throwing a milkshake at him, the endless hatred he generates on Twitter or instances of his own blatant hypocrisy.
Gaetz can be frustrating and borderline despicable, but every once in a while you get these glimpses of why people keep putting him on TV — and even why some of his fellow legislators maybe actually like him. There’s a dinner with Gaetz and Democrat Katie Hill, shortly after her scandal-fueled resignation, that’s halfway between one of those unlikely friendship nature documentaries and the fable of the frog and the scorpion. That dinner is great TV.
There are other things that The Swamp does very well. I loved the dystopian opening credits featuring D.C. becoming increasingly submerged in a swamp of encroaching vines and roots and predatory alligators. It’s fun, evocative and a visual motif that pops up occasionally throughout The Swamp, but probably not enough. It’s not exactly the directors’ fault that draining the swamp is only a thing Gaetz is doing when he isn’t sucking up to Trump and experiencing the apparent elation of Trump praising his handsomeness, but it isn’t not their fault either.
The Swamp is watchable and full of interesting pieces of Congressional trivia, some that I actually hadn’t known previously. It’s still a railroaded documentary, one that won’t necessarily be valuable as a snapshot of whether or not Trump succeeded in draining the swamp, but will definitely be valuable in 10 or 15 years when Matt Gaetz decides to run for president.
Premieres Tuesday, August 4 on HBO