The Sundance Film Festival, which began its 11-day, 119-title run on Thursday night with a few low-key screenings, is best known for indie films like "Winter's Bone" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," both of which catapulted from obscurity to Oscar contention in recent years after debuting here.
But it's also a major testing ground for documentaries -- especially those that appeal to viewers who share festival founder Robert Redford's liberal political outlook.
This year, the prestigious U.S. Documentary Competition offers left-leaning viewers a broad array of reasons to be outraged. "Citizen Koch" presents a relentless indictment of Charles and David Koch, two conservative businessmen who funded the successful effort to persuade the Supreme Court to extend First Amendment rights to corporations -- and, as a result, open the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending on behalf of pro-business candidates. The Tea Party, in this telling, is not a grassroots movement so much as a blue-collar front for an elite conspiracy to prevent President Obama and Congressional Democrats from accomplishing anything whatsoever on behalf of working Americans' real interests.
"Inequality for All" takes a friendlier approach to condemning America's dramatically tilted playing field. Summarizing the beliefs of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the film leverages Reich's facility for translating complicated financial trends into plain English to make a case against rising income inequality that even hardened capitalists should be able to appreciate. "What makes an economy stable is a strong middle class," Reich says before setting out to show how short-sighted proponents of lower taxes for the very wealthy are undermining the very prosperity they claim to seek.
Reich, who is familiar to many Americans from his sometimes strident appearances on TV news shows, makes a surprisingly charming, even self-deprecating companion. He makes frequent and funny references to his diminutive size, going so far as to show viewers the footstool he keeps in the trunk of his Mini Cooper so he can reach the microphone at speaking engagements, and he acknowledges that his idealism wasn't always the best fit for Washington. "I became a true pain in the ass," he says of his time in the Clinton administration. "I'm surprised Bill Clinton kept me around." But viewers will be tempted to forgive his faults when they grasp the vision that drives him: one of a country where everyone, rich and poor alike, share in the prosperity that he insists has been steadily building since the crash of 1929.
Reich's optimistic vision of America's promise is absent from "Dirty Wars," an unsparing exposé of the American war effort in the Middle East that accuses President Obama of continuing some of the worst practices of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The film tracks Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist for The Nation, as he follows the trail of evidence from a mysterious raid on a household in Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and even Somalia. Both the filmmaker and his subject risked untold harm to bring back this story -- one that even he acknowledges is not one most Americans will want to hear.
The festival's opening documentary, which premiered Thursday, offered a less unsparing view of American efforts, though the results were just as grim. "Who Is Dayani Cristal," part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition, begins with the discovery of a dead man in the Arizona desert. The search his identity, conducted by committed and well-intentioned U.S. officials, nevertheless raises painful questions about the economic inequities and punitive policies that have turned the nation's southern border into a crucible of paranoia, suffering and death. Before this year's Sundance Film Festival began, a conservative group in Utah staged a protest complaining about films like "Lovelace" and "The Look of Love," both of which unfold against the backdrop of the pornography business. But if conservatives need a meatier reason to feel aggrieved, they should look at the way their policies and their political icons are being criticized in the festival's hard-hitting documentaries.