'The Brainwashing of My Dad': Film Review

Gravitas Ventures
A well-intentioned but unpolished DIY investigation.

Jen Senko learns that her dad isn't the only person shockingly transformed by right-wing media.

How many moderate or left-leaning Americans don't have at least one family member, often an older one, who regularly spouts some third-hand talking point that's puzzlingly incompatible with the values of the person we once thought we knew? Jen Senko takes this as a challenge in The Brainwashing of My Dad, setting out to understand how the rise of right-wing media created a generation of voters whose opinions are invulnerable to fact-based debate. A very unpolished effort getting help from unexpected quarters — Matthew Modine as co-narrator, animated segments by Bill Plympton — it may draw a few urban lefties to niche theatrical engagements but will do better on VOD.

Senko begins with the story of her father, a "Kennedy Democrat" with a generous heart who, after a job change, found himself making a long solo commute to work instead of joining his usual carpool. Finding rush-hour company in the strident voices on talk radio, he started coming home with ideas his family found intolerant, even disturbing. Some years down the road, Senko fundraised on Kickstarter for a film to investigate the media she felt had warped her father — and from all over the country, she got testimonials from people who'd had the same experience.

That must have been heartening, but it doesn't explain why relative newcomer Senko should be the one to make this film. She doesn't hide her amateur-anthropologist status in scenes like one that begins, "One night I was watching Bill Moyers on Channel 13, and I learned about the role of Roger Ailes." Those in the audience who've known the Fox News founder for a decade or two may decide it's time to move on. Elsewhere, when someone is discussing Rush Limbaugh with her, Senko isn't aware of the ritual in which fans begin calls with the word "ditto," indicating that they agree with everything he says. Has she never listened to the program whose influence she's trying to explain to us?

Her use of comic-doc storytelling devices can be clumsy as well, but Senko does assemble some bits of the puzzle in useful ways. She talks about a famous memo by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell urging business interests to cultivate political power; she laments the death of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1987; she looks under the hood of the "bipartisan corruption" that gave us telecom reform.

A heavy hitter or two (hi, Noam!) make appearances here, but viewers hoping for a really rigorous look at this epoch-making media shift — viewers, that is, who probably already know most of the things Senko is learning — will be disappointed with the film's investigatory failings. The director does just a little to explore the actual psychological phenomena that change people so radically; and making one of the mistakes that distort her subjects' worldviews, she listens mostly to people who agree with her, avoiding anyone who might be willing to argue that all that nonsense on the airwaves is actually an improvement to our information environment.

She does, however, find an unexpected way to end her doc on an upbeat note. Would that all our tales of political family discord followed suit.

Production company: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Jen Senko
Screenwriters: Jen Senko, Melodie Bryant
Producers: Matthew Modine, Adam Rackoff
Executive producers: Jodie Evans, Daniel Goldberg, Jennifer Schultz, Ryan Smith
Director of photography: Rachael Levine
Editor: Kala Mandrake

Not rated, 89 minutes