Review: 2009 documentary “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Buckle up.
Sometimes being right is personally rewarding, sometimes it’s of financial benefit, and sometimes, unfortunately, it’s just downright painful. I recently wrote an article, “What’s Still The Matter With Thomas Frank?” about the upcoming (at the time) documentary by filmmakers Laura Cohen and Joe Winston, inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestselling book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The article I wrote caused a minor brouhaha with the filmmakers, who posted a commentary rebuttal and a photo of yours truly on the official film website. Other than framing me, the way liberals often do conservatives, as boiling over with anger and throwing Nazi labels where they have not been applied, it seemed like a typical day at the office of politics. I was somewhat amazed, and quite pleased, to see the comment section on their website fill with a majority of comments in my favor. People seemed to easily get the points I was trying to make.
What did come from the postings on the filmmaker’s website, in combination with comments from many of my radio listeners, was the need for me to watch the movie myself and write a review. At first, I thought this was beyond my purview, but after reading film critic Roger Ebert’s admittedly biased, bosomed embrace of the movie, I re-qualified myself with lightning speed. Watching the film in general was not a problem, as I would only be taking the advice I gave to readers in my original article. However, to watch the film post-haste was slightly more difficult, as the film was only being aired in leftist strongholds, such as the Democratic fundraiser in Wichita, Kansas (where I would have to shell out cash at the door), or the liberal “Alliance for Peace and Justice Organization,” in Manhattan, Kansas. To avoid having to fund the Democratic Party, Manhattan was the choice.
The accommodations in Manhattan were nice. After the crowd had been properly prepped with an oration of the glowing review by Roger Ebert, the lights dropped and an eerie melody started the movie as viewers began their journey into the filmmakers view of the great state of Kansas, and its people.
As a life-long Kansan, my experience was two-fold. First, the imagery of the movie has some very stunning footage of hay fields and country homes that was very beautiful to view. It is hard to deny the physical beauty of this state, and I admit to being biased with that opinion. Unfortunately, the film at its heart is not about the landscape but the people that inhabit that landscape, and more accurately, certain types of people. This is the heart of the review, or what the cattlemen might call the “meat” of the matter. Those weak of heart or lacking a firm grip on reality should just get up now, and with the same effort one would use to avoid a true Kansas cattle stampede, run while the running’s good.
I am afraid to report that when I compared Thomas Frank’s book, which I believe was a cheap hatchet job on the majority of the people of Kansas, and the 2009 Cohen/Winston documentary of the same name, I found that the apple does not fall very far from the tree. A few fundamental themes ran through the film. The first theme is that when Christians and their values are mixed with politics it is the recipe for political doom. The liberal crowd on viewing night seemed quite joyful as the pro-lifer, Phill Kline, is defeated by Paul Morrison for Kansas Attorney General (I wonder how voting for Morrison worked out for those voters). The next theme that is painstakingly drawn out (in the Wild West World story) is that when religion and politics are mixed, it causes great financial hardship and calamity.
Apart from the perils of Christianity, the film was a liberal smorgasbord of tasty treats, such as the plight of the illegal alien, the stupidity of [President] Bush, the senselessness of the war in Iraq, and if you make some room on your plate, they will just kept coming and coming. This may seem strange, but I thought the most compelling person for heartfelt sympathy was none other than Thomas Frank. Shocking? I truly began to feel pity for Frank as he all but pleads with the keepers of the dusty Kansas archives to explain to him where all the good socialists have gone. Pity turns to sadness for Frank’s desire for an alternate reality, such as when he is filmed stumbling through the all but forgotten socialist cemetery for “radicals” and stating in a forlorn manner, “This is my Kansas.” For me, that is the saddest moment of the film for many reasons, none of which is my desire to live in a socialist state.
The main star of the documentary is without a doubt the disgruntled former Republican, Donn Teske. Teske, a (Frank-friendly) resource from the 2004 book, pops up throughout the film in such beautiful Kansas activities, such as riding the tractor and grilling hamburgers. He is truly a lovable character, and even when we get to the end of the film and he is shown to be quite the left leaner, we almost love him too much to care.
The reward from viewing this film is that I can now share my knowledge of the levels of usage of direct and indirect propaganda that were present. Compared with a typical Michael Moore documentary, What’s the Matter with Kansas? is more than a little dry. Moore uses direct propaganda through a very fast paced production with constant narration. In other words, Moore directly lies to viewers nonstop throughout his movies, and with copious amounts of flare. This makes for faster viewing, but a more insulting film to those in the know. As I usually consider two showers a necessity to cleanse myself after watching a Moore film, one will suffice after viewing What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Contrary to the style of Moore, Cohen and Winston use indirect propaganda in that they do not act in the film or give a running narrative to the film; however, they show you a filtered view of reality that fits the message they want viewers to receive. They avoid focusing viewers on the Republican’s landslide victories throughout time, but instead focus upon their defeats. They could show you Christians that have had positive outcomes putting their views and beliefs into political work, but instead the movie is fixated on the sad outcome of the church that found itself at Wild West World. Can we call this a typical story of Kansas? I think not.
In the end, while less grandiose and repugnant than some films that have found their way to the public, what we have here is another propaganda film attacking conservative Christian values. Yes, in the end, sometimes being right is downright painful.
Paul A. Ibbetson is a former Chief of Police of Cherryvale, Kansas, and member of the Montgomery County Drug Task Force. Paul received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Criminal Justice at Wichita State University, and is currently completing his PhD. in sociology at Kansas State University. Paul is the author of the books Living Under The Patriot Act: Educating A Society and Feeding Lions: Sharing The Conservative Philosophy In A Politically Hostile World. Paul is also the radio host of the Kansas Broadcasting Association’s 2008 and 2009 Entertainment Program of the Year, Conscience of Kansas airing on KSDB Manhattan 91.9 f.m. www.ibbetsonusa.com. For interviews or questions, please contact email@example.com