Zeitgeist Films // 2006 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // July 31st, 2007
"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"
Ideas about free markets and limited government don't just belong to that Libertarian you knew in college; they were brought to national attention by Sen. Barry Goldwater. Sure, he didn't win his bid for the presidency, but he did drastically influence the course of the Republican Party for the next 20 years. He was called a racist, a revolutionary, a trigger-happy cowboy, and...a conservative.
Few political movements can be solely placed on the shoulders of a single person. The modern conservative movement that began in the 1960s and peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, however, can be attributed to Senator Barry Goldwater. Known by most as "Mr. Conservative," Goldwater was drafted into running for president against Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 election, and he lost by one of the largest margins in history. Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater, produced by his granddaughter CC Goldwater, attempts to explore the unknown side of Barry Goldwater and presents a comprehensive look into his political career.
The documentary bounces back and forth between personal stories about Goldwater, told by his family, reporters, and politicians, and a chronology of his career in politics. Some of the interviewees include Sen. John McCain, Sen. Hillary Clinton, George Will, Al Franken, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Walter Cronkite.
Goldwater was born in Arizona back before it was even a state, and spent much of his time roughing it in the outdoors, photographing nature, and hanging with Native Americans. His films of the Grand Canyon (one of which is included as a special feature on the DVD) gave him notoriety within the state, and allowed him to work his way up the political chain to become a U.S. Senator. His unwavering libertarian and conservative views, summed up in his book Conscience of a Conservative, made him somewhat of a rock star in the Republican Party. After losing his bid for the presidency, Goldwater served in the Senate until 1986.
Mr. Conservative also chronicles Goldwater's dedication to his beliefs and the Constitution, even as his own party moved away from him. Goldwater championed personal freedom, including the right for a woman to have an abortion and for gays to serve in the military (and get married, for that matter). During the 1980s and up until his death in 1998, he spoke out against the "Christian Right" and the social views of the modern Republican Party. He once called on all Christians to kick Jerry Falwell in the a**.
The documentary provides a look back at the bygone days of campaign stumping and rah-rah presidential campaigns, devoid of any sort of You Tube debating.
Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater is neither a hatchet job nor hero worship of this often-polarizing political figure. CC Goldwater has produced an honest, balanced look at her grandfather's personal and political life. While the film has some issues, it's an intriguing look at this revolutionary historical figure.
I am continually interested in films that chronicle political campaigns, and Mr. Conservative does a great job taking the viewer behind the scenes of the '64 election. The documentary uses a lot of archival and newsreel footage of the campaign stops, conventions, and press conferences of the time, but there is also a good deal of personal video footage from the Goldwater family. The documentary also takes a look at Goldwater's personal hobby of photography, and features many of his black-and-white prints and his nature films of the Grand Canyon. Overall, this footage acts as the meat of this documentary, and is surprisingly the best shot aspect of the film.
While CC Goldwater may have been producing this documentary, it was directed by Julie Anderson, whose prior documentary experience was with ESPN. Filming an interview is a fairly straightforward concept in documentary filmmaking. The interviewee sits down and is usually located slightly to the left or right of center-frame. In Mr. Conservative, Anderson can't seem to keep the camera still. Worse yet, she seems to have broken the zoom and focus buttons, making it seem as if each interview were taking place in the middle of a dizzying, drugged-up haze. The camera is constantly refocusing, sometimes blurring the interviewee in favor of something in the background; other times, it's zooming in on a person's hands or eyeballs and then panning around their body. While this may have been intentional, it ends up being odd and terribly distracting. I felt as if the director thought every interview was so boring that it needed spiced up with weird camera work.
The documentary does a good job of chronicling Goldwater's life in politics, but sometimes it takes long breaks in the timeline to inject personal stories into the mix. The 1964 presidential campaign is the big event of the film, and yet too often the movie diverts to CC asking someone to talk about their favorite "Goldwater story." It's very apparent that CC has never produced a documentary before, and sometimes the movie seems like it's a making-of for another Goldwater documentary. She appears occasionally to tell the audience what she's learning about her grandfather, and the experiences she's having while making the movie. Save it for a featurette, honey, and get back to Barry!
At first I questioned the presence of left-wing icons like Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and James Carville in the film, but I was pleasantly surprised by their admiration of Goldwater (it never turns into a rousing game of "bash the dead guy"). The film also talks a lot about how everyone respected Goldwater in the Senate, but focuses little on his legislative achievements. The man spent over 20 years in the Senate, but they never really tell me what he accomplished in that time.
Most of the time the movie's not trying to convince you that Goldwater was perfect, or that his beliefs were flawless. Instead it shows how complex, misunderstood, and ultimately influential the Arizona Senator was. Towards the end of the film, it takes a weird jaunt into the world of "let's re-brand Goldwater as a liberal." I'm guessing this was an effort to bring in a larger audience when the documentary aired on HBO. This idea is thankfully shot down in the film by George Will, who accurately points out the evolving nature of American political stances (and how Goldwater never changed his). In the end, the film doesn't wrest the title of "Mr. Conservative" away from Goldwater, but rather asks the viewer to question today's political use of the phrase.
The DVD features extended interviews from the documentary that were wisely left on the cutting room floor. The interviews are fun to watch, but are extremely candid and unprofessional. The camera is in rare form for these outtakes, zooming around like a humming bird. The most interesting of the extended interviews is with Norman Lear (developer of All in the Family), who talked about a television special with Goldwater called I Love Liberty. The whole event, which apparently took place in a giant stadium, sounded ridiculous; I wish they would have included footage of it.
Goldwater's 1940 film exploring the river rapids of the Grand Canyon is also included, thanks to the Arizona Historical Society. It's a neat film about exploring the canyon, and really proves that Goldwater knew how to operate a film camera (unlike the makers of the documentary).
Finally, the DVD also includes the HBO trailer for the movie, which is very well done. It would have been cool if the DVD had included more about the campaigns of '64, like television commercials or full interviews with Goldwater. Sadly, that stuff is nowhere to be found.
The packaging for Mr. Conservative is excellent. It's designed to look like vintage campaign posters, yellow with age. It's made to capture the feel of the archived footage in the film, and of a bygone era of campaign design motifs. The DVD comes with a booklet that features a timeline of Barry Goldwater's life, and an interview with CC Goldwater (although the interview text really should have been checked for grammar errors). The whole thing comes in a clear plastic DVD case, allowing you to see the full-color campaign picture on the reverse side of the DVD cover.
Mr. Conservative provides a look at one of the standout figures in American politics. Sure the film has some weird issues with storytelling, and is often bogged down by CC Goldwater, but overall it's a solid documentary. It's a must-see for anyone interested in the history of American politics.
Not guilty. Barry Goldwater always said what he meant and stood by his values -- and that includes his desire to kick Jerry Falwell in the butt.
Review content copyright © 2007 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 30 Minutes of Additional Interviews
* "Shooting Grand Canyon Rapids" Film by Goldwater
* HBO Promotional Trailer
* Official Site