Journalist Thomas Frank appears in Joe Winston's documentary What's the Matter with Kansas?, but strictly speaking, this portrait of a cross-section of that state known for its radical history and contemporary conservatism is not a cinematic companion to his book. Instead it is an extension of it, with the backdrop of the 2006 midterm elections serving as a backdrop for the further exploration of how "family values" have come to trump economic self-interest for so many conservative voters. Insightful and scrupulously fair, the doc holds appeal to political junkies and anyone drawn to sociological issues or contemporary American history, but with limited distribution its box office potential looks to be modest at best.
One of the documentary's strengths is that Winston keeps his counsel. What his own political and/or religious leanings might be are never evident while he surveys the scene all across Kansas in the months leading up to the elections. Instead, he simply lets his subjects talk and they represent quite a range: from Frank, who talks about the state's leftist roots, to the Kansas Farm Union official who describes himself as "a populist without a party," to the homeschooled high schooler who is firm in her conservative beliefs but also cocooned from inquisition by her community, church and even the Christian college she’s about to attend. More interesting are the adults in her sphere: her father, who is as conservative as his daughter but disagrees with the Bush administration on the war in Iraq; Angel, a farmer and Christian activist first seen promoting pro-life issues at a fair but who later evinces a much more nuanced attitude towards life and death issues when she talks about her late, profoundly brain-damaged son; and the Reverend Terry Fox, a Baptist minister who loses his pulpit due to his controversial views and thereafter starts a new church on the grounds of a theme park.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? climaxes with Democratic gains in Congress and an upset in the Kansas Attorney General's race as Republic incumbent Phill Kline—a candidate many of the people featured in the film actively support—loses to his Democratic challenger. It is an appropriate place to end the film, but also one that leaves the impression that this is a story that will never be completely over. After all, a scant three years later the Democrats firmly control both houses of Congress and the White House and the conservatives have answered with tea parties and Sarah Palin. The documentary has its heroes and villains, though who is who depends entirely on the viewers' own political viewpoint. But the most compelling thing about it is what it captures: a snapshot of America's ongoing and endless cultural war at a moment when things begin to shift.
Distributor: Tallgrass Films
Director: Joe Winston
Producer: Laura Cohen and Joe Winston
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: January 1 San Francisco