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One of my least favorite criticisms that can be levied against a documentary is that it’s “not objective,” a charge that nearly always seems to emanate from people who think that Dinesh D’Souza counts as a voice of objectivity. It needn’t be a partisan issue, mind you, to be aware that by virtue of choosing a subject, filming the subject, editing the subject, attaching music to the subject and basically doing everything else associated with filmmaking, objectivity in documentaries is, at best, another illusion.
Starz’s new five-hour unscripted series Leavenworth is not objective.
AIR DATE Oct 20, 2019
Directed by Paul Pawlowski and featuring Steven Soderbergh among its big-name producers, it’s a documentary that makes you constantly aware of many of its storytelling choices and the push-and-pull they’re meant to elicit from viewers.
In lieu of objectivity, Leavenworth opts to be ambiguous — aggressively ambiguous. From the first to last episode, I’ve rarely been as conscious of having my sense of outrage yanked in so many directions, such that by the credits I knew that Leavenworth had captured and chronicled an injustice, but if you were to ask me who perpetuated the injustice or what actual justice in this case would look like, my answer would be fuzzy. It’s a sensation I found generally compelling and curious, but it’s very easy for me to imagine some viewers coming away angry at the series’ reticence to pick a side, and other viewers, ones with pre-existing opinions, feeling frustration that the doc didn’t adhere to their chosen polarization.
The title, a bit of a misnomer, refers to United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, current home to Clint Lorance. Lorance is serving a 19-year sentence for murder stemming from a July 2012 incident in Afghanistan in which he ordered his platoon to open fire on three locals on a motorcycle. Lorance didn’t shoot a gun himself, and it’s possible the locals had ties to terror organizations and comparable actions haven’t been met with comparable punishments, but nothing here is simple. Over its five hours, Leavenworth delves into the strange intricacies of the military justice system, the nature of modern warfare and a polarized national culture in which a sympathetic and imperfect young man can be used as a political hot potato being championed and vilified by people on both sides of the aisle with little consideration for such seemingly important concepts as “guilt” or “innocence.”
It’s a lot, and I often wasn’t sure if there was enough “plot” to justify the series’ full duration, but whereas some documentaries would approach these five hours as the chance to build a single argument, with a thesis and decisive conclusion, Leavenworth chooses to construct and deconstruct the full case, complete with its results and impact. The confusion is the thing.
As New York Times correspondent Dave Philipps puts it, “The truth is a practice and not a destination.”
Or as Lorance observes, “Truth is flexible in today’s society.”
The case itself is a mess, and Pawlowksi and editors Mike Api and Tim Johnson build the film as a well-rounded mess, withholding and strategically detonating information that a more pointed and literal recounting would have avoided. It’s not always completely pleasant. There were more than a couple times I felt as if the desire to exclude or delay not-unimportant details represented a filmmaking contrivance and not a representation of the legal morass.
The filmmakers want you to be comfortable in one opinion and then pull the rug out, to reset your perspective on right and wrong and then get sent spinning again. You aren’t just supposed to be constantly evaluating your judgments. You’re supposed to be evaluating what your judgment means in regard to bigger legal or ethical questions, to be pondering who your judgment leaves you aligned with, to be generally uneasy with all of your potential bedfellows. Who comes to this story with agendas or biases and which of those mitigating factors are they even conscious of? Is Lorance being used as a propaganda tool or does he have agency? Is a dogged attorney a courageous truth-teller or slick opportunist? How confident are you in holding onto any position if that position gets taken up by Sean Hannity?
The best way to be pissed off at Leavenworth is to come in feeling like the case is black and white.
It’s a well-rounded and candid ensemble of interview subjects, starting with Lorance, speaking from Leavenworth. It’s easy to see here how the series length benefits the ambiguity, because there are cut-downs of Lorance’s answers that would make him wholly sympathetic and others that might make him look myopic and foolhardy. And guess what? Like most people, he’s probably a little of each. His myriad featured family members are determined and loving and not without flaws or blind spots of their own. Their ongoing faith that President Donald Trump will use his pardon powers on Lorance, despite all evidence suggesting Trump’s pardon process functions on no logic they (or anybody else) can understand, is just one of many outside factors being critiqued.
The men from Clint’s platoon are well-represented, but their memories and impressions don’t always make the points you expect them to. If you were to point to any aspect on which Leavenworth is unwavering, it would be its acceptance that low-level troops are fundamentally heroic, even if those steering them have conflicted agendas.
A trio of Afghan nationals with ties to that ill-fated day are interviewed and their perspectives are crucial for recognizing flaws in our strategy of counterinsurgency, but it’s not like they’re objective, either. Like the soldiers, they’re the human face of war.
And in lieu of active military members and representatives of the military’s case against Lorance, the series features at least a dozen reporters and experts in military law, whose general purpose is more illustrating the labyrinth that Lorance was caught in than steering us through that labyrinth. As with so much here, I wouldn’t lie and say that I came away with my understanding of military justice much advanced from what I learned in A Few Good Men, but my understanding of why I don’t understand it is surely advanced. The implication of the title seems to be that Lorance’s cluttered, conflicted story is just one of many the filmmakers could tell from within the halls of Leavenworth, a place that title aside, we get very little sense of.
Formally, Leavenworth is straightforward. Don’t let the “Soderbergh” brand name fool you into expecting aesthetic flourish. It’s dominated by these talking heads and makes solid use of archival pictures and footage to open the story up a little, but it’s talky to the degree you could almost just listen to it as a podcast. That, plus the subject matter, probably explains why I often found myself comparing it to the underrated second season of Serial, in which the story of Bowe Bergdahl was given ambiguous enough treatment that it irked anybody uninterested in shades of gray. You probably now have a sense if you’re in the likely-to-be-intrigued or likely-to-be-annoyed camp when it comes to Leavenworth. I was largely the former.
Premieres: Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)
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