All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State: Film Review

Tribeca Film Festival
Admiring doc aims to cement Richards' place in history but doesn't live up to its name.

Journalists, politicians and friends join to praise trailblazing Texan Ann Richards.

NEW YORK -- The most famous, if not quite the first, female governor of Texas gets her share of posthumous praise in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, a lively encomium by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper. Though its selective memory hardly lives up to the promise of its puzzling title, the documentary does capture the whip-smart charms of a woman who reached impressive heights in a system weighted against her. Airdates on HBO (starting April 28) will likely be well-received.

The picture opens, naturally, with the 1988 Democratic National Convention speech that made her a star outside her state, thanks to sarcastic jabs at then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. "She was a traveling late-night show," says former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, noting that the famously witty pol came up with many of her best zingers on the spot without the assistance of speech writers.

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We're treated to plenty of those jokes here, but we also see Richards's no-nonsense side. Vintage press interviews show a woman whose acumen and grasp of the issues that mattered to her were undeniable. That substantive knowledge was matched by a canny sense of political theater. At her DNC appearance, Richards had her team insist that the house lights be lowered when she took the stage, ensuring that the crowd would shut up and the cameras would have little but her to shoot.

The filmmakers offer a tidy chronology of how she got to that podium and what she did afterward. She entered public life late, after moving from the "right-wing lunacy" of Dallas to Austin, where she and then-husband David Richards were "at the social epicenter" of a burgeoning liberal community.

We hear how she saved the state billions by computerizing checking systems once she was elected State Treasurer, but the movie's real interest is in her fight to get from there to the Governor's chair. A mean-spirited three-way Democratic primary brings out her fighting side, whereupon she gets to run against a Republican energy tycoon, Clayton Williams, who, like the son of G.H.W. Bush who would later unseat her, was tremendously well-financed and tremendously under-qualified for the job. "Blatant Millions," as he was labeled at the time, made spectacular gaffes about rape and was forced to admit he didn't know the content of a referendum on that year's ballot. She won the race.

Patterson and Schopper enjoy Richards's four-year stretch in office, recalling how a woman -- who Dan Rather describes as an "incredibly hard worker" -- diversified state government, used her experience with alcoholism recovery to inaugurate drug-rehab programs in prisons and wrangled with the insurance industry. She was on a roll, and nobody thought she could be beaten in her 1994 re-election campaign, except for one strategist who happened to be right: Karl Rove. The film sadly chronicles the whisper campaigns and special-interest money that took her down and handed Texas to George W. Bush.

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This chronology is highly engaging and reminds us of the many reasons people admire Richards, but the film glosses over some aspects of her life and career. Even viewers who know nothing about Richards may raise an eyebrow at the film's handling of her divorce. We see her tell an interviewer that she simply couldn't have run for office while being married, as if that explains anything, and then hear nothing more about it.

But well informed viewers can make a more serious complaint about omissions in the film's depiction of Richards's post-statehouse career. The crusader who was quick to condemn former Governor Mark White for getting rich after leaving office and who declared during her administration that the "revolving door" between government and private influence-peddling "is shut" went on to enter that high-paid industry herself; more importantly, her clients included people her old liberal buddies would have fought tooth and nail — big tobacco, weapons makers, and developers building a mall on ecologically sensitive wetlands. Those clients are never mentioned here, and in the interviews we see, Richards somehow manages to describe her career working for lobbyists without once using that word. (Those aiming to preserve her lefty credentials are quick to note that, while she worked at a high level for the lobbying firm Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, she was not technically a registered lobbyist.) One wonders what the firebrand candidate Ann Richards, so good at calling out hypocrisy in her opponents, would have had to say about Richards the post-statehouse private citizen.

Production: HBO Documentary Films

Directors: Keith Patterson, Phillip Schopper

Producers: Keith Patterson, Phillip Schopper, Curry Glassell, Jack Lofton

Executive producer: Sheila Nevins

Director of photography:

Editor: Phillip Schopper

Music: Michael Bacon

Rated, 82 minutes