Did you know that for over twenty years, Nancy Pelosi’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, has been one of the most successful working documentary filmmakers?
That statement doesn’t sound quite right, but by some objective metrics, it is true. Consider: most of Alexandra Pelosi’s films — recipients of six Primetime Emmy nominations and one win (for editing) — have been funded and distributed by HBO. Her 2002 debut, Journeys with George, which chronicled her time on George W. Bush’s campaign bus during the 2000 Republican primary, established her extraordinary level of access to America’s political elite on both sides of the Democratic/Republican divide.
For 2017’s The Words That Built America, her fifty-nine-minute film of readings from the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, her on-screen readers included all the living presidents (including Donald Trump), Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Al Gore, John Roberts, John McCain, Sean Hannity, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and more than a hundred other heavy hitters from America’s political and culture spheres. It’s fair to say that no other documentary filmmaker — not Michael Moore, Errol Morris, or Werner Herzog — has enjoyed such consistent and prestigious patronage for so long.
So given that Pelosi is, by some metrics, very successful, why have you probably never heard of her? One possible reason is that her films are consistently, stupefyingly awful — boring, self-serving, dealing only in banalities and received wisdom, and relentlessly fawning over some of the most boring company imaginable. Her films invariably proceed no further than their basic premises and, at their worst, endorse and uphold some of the worst political trends of the last fifty years. Her work may be close to unwatchable, but watching it reveals volumes about the limits of the liberal imagination.
An Insider’s Outsider
For several years, Alexandra Pelosi has felt a bit like my little secret, but this looks poised to change. In October, footage that she shot of her mother during the Capitol Riot was screened during the January 6 committee hearings, and this footage will form the basis for her fifteenth film, Pelosi in the House, which will be broadcast December 13 on HBO. For us longtime observers, the prospect of the younger Pelosi directing a sober hagiography of her mother represents the culmination of a long career spent playfully denying her birthright.
In her early work, she pitches herself as an outsider, living awkwardly between the political and media spheres but not fully comfortable in either. Journeys with George introduces this recurring idea, as well as another: that dyed-in-the-wool Democrat — heck, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi! — can have a civil conversation with the opposing side, if not necessarily find common ground. She follows George W. Bush in the waning days of the 2000 primary, and if nothing else, successfully captures what made him a consummate retail politician.
Bush cultivates a big-brother dynamic with Pelosi, joking about her love life and occasionally commandeering her mini-DV camera. While we get a strong sense of Bush’s particular fratty charisma, we hear virtually nothing about his policy ideas or political ideology, save for a few anodyne fragments of his stump speech. Unpleasant episodes from the primary are absent: Karl Rove appears briefly, rattling off statistics about past primaries, but don’t expect Pelosi to ask if he orchestrated the whisper campaign around “John McCain’s black baby.”
Pelosi is less interested in ideology than in the quotidian details of a political campaign: the handshaking, the bus, the motel rooms, and especially the Saran-Wrapped ham sandwiches that the press are fed. The sandwiches aren’t nearly as interesting as Pelosi seems to think they are, but it’s revealing how often she keeps returning to the subject. That these sandwiches are indistinguishable from what many Americans eat every day doesn’t occur to Pelosi, who regards them as symbolic of all that these candidates and journalists must endure in pursuit of the prize. Also revealing is the chummy relationship she captures between the candidate and the press, none of whom seem to regard themselves as neutral or oppositional forces in relation to the candidate.
Michael Moore was at the height of his influence during the production of Diary of a Political Tourist (2004), and his sensibility pervades Pelosi’s “irreverent” documentary about the 2004 Democratic Party primary. Pelosi is the titular “political outsider,” and though the film opens with her hobnobbing with the sitting president at the White House Christmas party, she positions herself as chaotic force outside of the beltway mainstream.
Much of the films is spent with her ambushing Democratic presidential candidates at various campaign stops, always with silly questions that they answer with rictus grins. The one 2004 candidate absent from Pelosi’s chronicle is Dennis Kucinich, although we do see a Kucinich button on an activist who harangues Dick Gephardt over his support for the Iraq War. “If you want to run for president, you have to confront this guy,” says Pelosi in her narration. For her, the party’s activist base is just another obstacle to be overcome, like the media or ham sandwiches.
The second half imitates Roger & Me, Moore’s 1990 film about his pursuit of the General Motors chairman and CEO, with Pelosi trying to land a sit-down interview with John Kerry (by now the presumptive nominee). In Moore’s film, the difficultly is being able to get the interview, but Pelosi never realizes she has the exact opposite problem: it never occurs to her that she is the only member of the press who is allowed to follow the presidential nominee uninvited through a hotel lobby and into an elevator. In one accidentally revealing moment, she “ambushes” Kerry on a sidewalk as he’s on his way to a car, and Kerry — who just seconds before brushed off a BBC journalist — pauses to offer her some pleasantries. This “political outsider” has the last name Pelosi, and Kerry knows what side his bread is buttered on.
Pelosi’s campaign diaries are more interested in the front-facing side of campaigns than in the closed-door meetings where power is really built. She tackles this side of politics in one of her “issue” films, Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk? (2016), which stunningly refuses to commit to the idea that big money in politics is bad (her non-thesis, stated in her narration, is “Politics is a rich man’s game, and some of the richest families in America are all in”).
The film is a series of unenlightening interviews with top donors, including Haim Saban, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tom Steyer, and grocery store tycoon John Catsimatidis, a megadonor to both parties whose office wall is covered with photos of him handshaking various Clintons and Bushes. Catsimatidis comes across as a political fanboy who enjoys proximity to power for its own sake, and is a perfect mascot for Pelosi’s film, which sees big donors not as a network of oligarchs but as independent actors with vastly differing motives.
Beyond the Political Divide
The campaign diaries and issue films represent two subgenres of Pelosi’s documentaries. A third is the type of film in which she travels “outside her bubble” to talk to ordinary voters from across the aisle. Right America: Feeling Wronged — Some Voices from the Campaign Trail (2009) was filmed during the last weeks of the 2008 campaign, and features interviews with John McCain voters who can see the writing on the wall. Most are Christian conservatives who fit Obama’s characterization of “clinging to guns and religion.”
No one is on-screen for more than three minutes, so there is little time for anyone to say anything enlightening, but enough time to deliver a great deal of sexist and racist rhetoric. The only interesting moment comes after Pelosi interviews a racist white man at a Mississippi gas station, when she is challenged by a pair of black men who chide her for using him as a representative of their community. “Shame on you, white liberal lady,” says one of them, who points out that plenty of racism also exists in New York.
It is to Pelosi’s credit that she included this pushback in the final cut, but unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have internalized the lesson. She revisited the same basic premise for the Trump era in Outside the Bubble: A Roadtrip with Alexandra Pelosi (2018), in which she again goes on safari to the heartland. Again she frames America as simplistically divided along red/blue lines (she doesn’t consider all the Republican voters in blue-state suburbs, or the many black Democrats in the South). “I’m bursting out of my own bubble to meet people in communities across this country where the big issues have erupted to see what we can learn from listening to our fellow Americans,” she says in her opening narration — but what are we supposed to do with the knowledge we accumulate? For her, the listening itself is the point.
At one point, Pelosi talks to a woman who says that she makes only $7 per hour at her job. Pelosi replies, “Is that even legal?” It’s hard to watch this and not shout back at the TV, “Maybe there’s someone in Washington you could talk to who has a little sway?” — but of course, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi stops short of using her platform to advocate for a $15 minimum wage. Though eager to present herself as culturally liberal, she also strives to be “fair and balanced.” Even so, like anyone who claims not to be, she is deeply ideological, and San Francisco 2.0 (2015) — which gets my vote for being her very worst film — is highly revealing about what she stands for.
Its subject is the Silicon Valley tech industry’s expansion to San Francisco, which, per Pelosi’s narration, is “being forced to reinvent itself.” Her camera pans across residential streets where old houses are being refurbished, and she tells us, “These are the homes of a new generation who have been transforming this town for a power city.” Pelosi tours various start-up offices and incubators, taking the tech industry entirely on its own terms — to her, it really is “disruptive,” “game-changing,” etc. Nevertheless, she has a few niggling questions: Is the march of progress leaving some Bay Area residents behind? And what will happen to the city’s legendary counterculture?
The second question we can dispense with quickly. To illustrate the city’s bohemian side, Pelosi shows us a clip of the Village People. She doesn’t understand or care about counterculture. As for gentrification, the film opens with former California governor Jerry Brown quoting Heraclitus: “No man steps in the same river twice.” When Pelosi asks if the city is changing for the better, he replies, “That’s like saying, ‘Is getting older for the better?’ It’s inevitable.” Commodification is an apolitical force, like the weather. So much the better that San Francisco happens to be changing in a way that Pelosi is clearly comfortable with. While some token acknowledgment is made of the affordable housing crisis, displaced residents, and shuttered community landmarks, the filmmaker’s unmistakable perspective is that you can’t have an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
About halfway through, Pelosi visits an art dealership that is being forced into closure after its landlord tripled the rent. We see artists dropping by to collect work they can’t afford to store, and we hear the owner lament how a business that has existed for three decades can just be pushed out so unceremoniously. Pelosi is sad — sorta, kinda — that this business has to go, but what’s really telling is the questions she doesn’t ask. Why are so many incentives in place for start-ups but so many obstacles for this art dealership? Who are the people approving the legislation that has made these conditions possible? Why do they value one thing and not the other? This is all far too complicated — better to focus on the sandwiches.