'Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Tanne Willow
Kathy Griffin wants her career back.

The comic shares the details of what happened to her in the wake of the infamous severed-Trump-head photo in this new doc.

Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story details the saga around the infamous photo that the comic posted of a severed Donald Trump head. It’s an entirely self-funded project that Griffin and her director Troy Miller put together to tell the larger story of the fallout from Griffin's famously unapologetic point of view.

Unsurprisingly, the film from start to finish is a super-sized middle finger to the Trump administration. Griffin wears the same blue-bowed dress she’s seen wearing in the photo in question. She name-drops left and right who did and didn’t support her after she lost jobs and was blacklisted in Hollywood. She even reads a scathing letter that a fan — “Bobby from Sarasota” — sent to Anderson Cooper after he tweeted condemnation of Griffin. The film is enormously funny (like her or not, anyone who says Griffin isn’t talented is just disingenuous at this point), and the Los Angeles audience in front of whom she taped it eats every bit up.

It is a misnomer to call it a documentary, though; it is basically 75 minutes of stand-up and five minutes of narrated b-roll where we see behind-the-scenes stills of the photo shoot that produced the Trump photo and later, Griffin doing speaking engagements in front of unidentified crowds wearing a First Amendment t-shirt. As stand-up specials go, it’s what you’d expect. There's some physical comedy, and a few tweets are read from notecards. Calling this a stand-up special isn’t meant to be an insult. It’s what comics like her — highly successful with almost two-dozen produced stand-up specials and a dedicated fan-base — do: They tape stand-up specials. But that she is calling this a documentary is illuminating. It speaks to the overall tone of the film; it's a thinly veiled attempt to rehab her career masked as a crusade for First Amendment justice.

Griffin mentions repeatedly that she’s done a lot of research and is learning in the wake of her scandal. She is up to speed on active hate groups and Nazi-affiliated figures; knows the difference between death threats that are and are not credible; and has studied how the justice system works now that it has directly impacted her for the first time in her 50s. But we have to take her word for it, as she doesn’t share any specifics or include any experts. There’s absolutely a case to be made that the First Amendment rights of Americans are threatened by the Trump administration, but Griffin really doesn’t try, even a little bit, to make that case during this film. And that’s unfortunate.

Trump specifically targeted Griffin and wanted to ruin her, she argues, by putting her on the no-fly list and subjecting her to a prolonged FBI investigation for a possible felony charge of conspiracy to assassinate the president, which carries a stiff sentence. One of her most spirited rants comes when she says the Justice Department wanted her to do a perp walk in an orange jumpsuit, and that she would rather lose everything than let that happen.

Griffin’s biggest gripe seems to be that her professional opportunities have yet to return since the fallout. She has had to front the funds for all of her stand-up shows and make money from ticket sales. But her Laugh Your Head Off Tour (from which the film’s stand-up footage is taken) reportedly brought in $4 million, and it’s hard to see her as someone who is unemployed; she may be underpaid for someone of her career level, but Griffin is definitely far from being unable to make a living.

It’s also hard not to think about Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking 2018 comedy special Nanette while watching Hell of a Story. It’s clear that Trump's targeting of Griffin has been traumatic for her and her family — the vitriol she’s suffered on- and offline would be hard for anyone to handle — and, being a comic, she wants to take all this and make it funny. But she doesn’t leave space for things to resonate, as Gadsby so powerfully did when talking about trauma. One of the most revealing parts of the special is when Griffin says that her older sister, who died from cancer in 2017 just a few months after the photo scandal, received death threats while she was in a hospital; Griffin also says her elderly mother received death threats at her nursing home. This is truly grim, and her voice understandably turns weepy. But just as quickly, Griffin snaps back with a quick joke and moves us on to the next beat in her story. In a post-Nanette world, it feels weird and a bit underwhelming for a comic to dangle this kind of darkness in front of us and then quickly brush it under the rug.

That Griffin has suffered grave consequences in the wake of her decision to post the photo, and suffers still, is very clear in the film. What is less clear, however, is how this applies to us, why we should care and what exactly she wants from us — and for us — other than ticket sales.

Production companies: Inappropriate Laughs, Dakota Pictures
Director: Troy Miller
Producers: Kathy Griffin, Troy Miller
Director of photography: Chuck Oztaskin
Editor: Petey Hentrich
Music: Johnathan Angel
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Christina Campagnola (APA)

80 minutes