Judge Daniel MacDonald wouldn't want to get into an argument with any of these kids.
Debate…where ideas are the weapon of choice
The opening minutes of Resolved, an absorbing documentary from director Greg Whiteley (New York Doll), aim to erase any preconceptions the audience may hold about the nature of high school debate, and the kids who participate in it. Rather than clean-cut preppies in rep ties undertaking a polite exchange of ideas, the debaters in Resolved come across as cocky street poets, practicing an aggressive rapid-fire debate strategy called "Spread." The idea is to overwhelm the opposition with information to make refuting individual arguments all the more difficult; of course, both sides typically use Spread, meaning the barrage comes in stereo.
The amount of preparation behind these debates is staggering: picture high school students dragging around three or more large Rubbermaid tubs of research, compiled over the summer, painstakingly organized to allow teams to quickly pull together an attack or defense. These kids know their stuff. Sadly, because Spread is so incomprehensible to those who aren't trained to decode it (one coach claims that humans can absorb 800 words per minute of information, so the fact that these debaters speak 400 wpm is no big deal), there are virtually no spectators at these debates, even State championships. Rather than arguing at the front of an auditorium with a serious-looking moderator in the middle to keep things civil, these battles take place in small sweaty classrooms, a handful of judges (also young people) making surprisingly detailed notes as competitors do their best recreations of a Micro Machines ad.
Resolved follows four subjects, and in doing so it both introduces us the concept and practice of Spread, and shows a movement toward a more classical debating style. We first meet Sam and Matt, two talented speed-debaters who win championships more often than not, and carry around healthy chips on their shoulders. This pair from Highland Park private school in Texas brings us up to speed on the conventions of modern high school debate. In contrast are Louis and Richard, from Jordan High School in California, one of the few public schools with a high-level debate squad. While they are also skilled in Spread, Louis and Richard make a decision to rally against the soulless form of debate that has become the norm, making the arguments personal and specific to their experiences as African-Americans. Not everyone agrees this is a great idea.
Resolved is never boring, and can be a surprisingly emotional experience, especially as we follow Richard and Louis' campaign to revolutionize debate. Their passion for what they're doing is palpable; the stakes are high, and the two refuse to compromise. We learn early on that the goal of the opposing side in most of these debates (which are typically about a foreign policy issue such as addressing the genocide in Darfur) is to show that whatever action is being proposed will eventually result in nuclear war. While an interesting intellectual exercise, this also makes debating a sort of strategy game; in contrast, Richard and Louis internalize the debate and make arguments from their own life experience, leaving them vulnerable to ridicule. It's a remarkably brave move, and I defy anyone not to be caught up in it.
Much of Resolved's success as entertainment can be credited to its pace: we don't focus on any particular debate for very long, and certainly aren't expected to keep up with the arguments being put forward by these students. Cute, helpful animated segments pop up now and then to explain what we're seeing and give background to how debate got to where it is. Rather than just trying to explain how modern debate works, though, Resolved is structured as a piece of drama, establishing conflicts in the first act that will pay off late in the game, a substantial and laudable feat for any documentary. Music is used to powerful effect, too, especially a dramatic Death Cab for Cutie song that takes us home as various threads are wrapped up. Although stylistically dissimilar, Greg Whiteley shows the potential to be a documentarian in the league of Errol Morris (The Fog of War).
The screener we were sent contains two-channel Dolby Digital rather than the 5.1 that the final product will feature, but it's an impressive audio mix nonetheless. With words spit out as if from a chain gun, the dialogue is as clear and understandable as one could expect, and there is rarely any sort of tearing or distortion. The movie appears to have been shot on prosumer-grade video, and the DVD does well to replicate the image within that boundary. There are instances of digital grain, smearing, and a lack of fine detail, all likely the result of shooting in classrooms with little if any supplemental lighting, but video quality is never a distracting issue. No special features are included.
Resolved is among the most engrossing documentaries I've had the opportunity to see, and I highly recommend it. Not guilty.
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