Even when it bites, reality can be entertaining
Many documentaries focus on social issues, rather than politics, although peripherally they are political. Social documentaries sometimes strike closer to home, making their subjects much more identifiable to many filmgoers.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003). The Friedmans were a seemingly typical Long Island family until their lives were shattered one night in 1988 when police raided their home and arrested the father, Arnold, and the youngest son, Jesse, on charges of child molestation. The alleged victims were neighborhood children who attended computer classes at Arnold's home. Capturing the Friedmans is a roller-coaster ride of a film. At one moment the two men appear to be guilty, and then along comes evidence to throw your opinion in a different direction -- and then in another. Enormous amounts of evidence have been unearthed to support both sides, although innocence seems to have the edge. Beyond the question of guilt or innocence, the film is a brilliant exposé of the family's self-destruction. Be sure to watch all of the supplemental material on the DVD. There is enough footage for a second movie, and all of it is riveting.
Startup.com (2001). The boom and bust of many Internet companies is one of the major business and cultural stories of recent times, and it would be a perfect subject for a probing documentary. Keep waiting, because this overpraised film isn't it. The company featured is govWorks.com, which grew out of the friendship of two longtime friends, Kaleil and Tom. Despite the unlimited access granted the filmmakers, we never really learn the inner workings of the Web site beyond the vague idea that people would use it to pay parking tickets. Exactly why did investors think this was a good idea? Why did it ultimately fail? These questions are never addressed. Instead we get a human drama of how business can adversely affect a friendship. It's an old story, and there seems to be little reason for its retelling.
The Weather Underground (2002). The Vietnam War is back in the public forum, which should increase interest in this excellent examination of one of the most notorious anti-war groups of the early 1970s. The Weather Underground, seeking a revolutionary transformation of U.S. society, decided to bring the war home with bombs and other criminal activities. Many of its members never went to prison. The documentary mixes archival footage with present-day interviews with members of the group.
Libby, Montana (2004). The story of Libby, Montana, is one of the great tragedies of modern America, described by the EPA as the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in the U.S. Libby is located next to a large deposit of vermiculite, an asbestos ore used in numerous products. Not only did workers at Zonolite, a subsidiary of W.R. Grace, inhale the deadly fibers, but so have the residents of the town. The film does an effective job of showing what the company and the government knew about the health threat but failed to reveal to the residents. Because vermiculite is used in so many products, including insulation, Libby's story affects millions of Americans who may have been or will be exposed. Libby, Montana will be playing in theaters, but its release will likely be limited. Watch for this one on DVD. It definitely deserves Oscar consideration.