The Two Reviews – Documentary Special: Dawson City: Frozen Time and The Newspaperman

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Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016, Hypnotic Pictures & Picture Palace Pictures)
Directed by Bill Morrison; Produced by Bill Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux

As an archaeologist and a film enthusiast, I have always wanted to explore this topic more – the genuine and artful presentation of the fruits of archaeological discovery on film. There is only one good example that springs to mind: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams from 2010. Here was this veteran, slightly crazy film-maker taking a close and eccentric look at one of the most famous collection of preserved Palaeolithic rock art in the world and being totally immersed in it. It gave the viewer an opportunity to see this mind-blowing wonder of early humanity through the eyes of a curiosity-driven genius And it works – archaeology becomes accessible enough for the non-archaeologist and it appears real, exciting and awesome all in one! I imagine something similar could be established if Louis Theroux done a documentary on the passage tombs in Ireland for instance! But examples of genuine presentations of archaeology like this are all too rare. A caricature of archaeologists and the archaeology profession is commonly released to the masses through Hollywood blockbusters (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, Prometheus) or else through nonsense documentaries about the Pyramids on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic.

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Now Dawson City: Frozen Time is not exactly about archaeology per se. It actually touches on a lot of things: the fascinating story of the Gold Rush, the glory of early silent film and North American prehistory/history in general. But it is also very much about archaeological discovery. Here we have a genuine attempt in using an actual ‘treasure find’ and doing something very imaginative with it. The creators Bill Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux were very clever in drawing up this film and presenting it the way they have. As a synopsis, the documentary concerns itself with the history of Dawson City, now a small town located in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Dawson was the population centre that sprouted up during the infamous Klondike Gold Rush between 1896 and 1899, but inevitably declined over the following decades due its remote location, harsh climate and the exhaustion of extracting gold resources in the area.

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The main thrust of the film is told through a host of rare silent film footage from salvaged reels that were discovered in the mud of the melting Yukon River permafrost near Dawson in 1978. It turned out that the reels were dumped in the river by owners of the local picture-house when sound pictures (talkies) came into popularity in the late 1920s. Some of the reels were found to contain extraordinary footage of the Gold Rush from the late 19th Century as well as several thought-to-be-forgotten silent films from the 1900s and 1910s. There was also early stock news footage from big events in North America and from around the world in the reels. It is an extraordinary achievement in not just salvaging and working towards making the reels viewable again, but in presenting it as a montage of over two hours that tells a story of Dawson, its wild beginnings, the subsequent gold rush and its inevitable decline.

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The two hour running time is probably too long and the rolling silent footage of various early dramatic films can sometimes be incoherent and repetitive, but the endeavour of the direction is truly marvellous. It makes one think of the past as a living and breathing entity. Somehow, the late 19th century and early 20th century does not seem all that different to now but at the same time, it is fascinating and insightful. After the release of the documentary, most of the media concentrated on the footage of the scandalous 1919 World Series baseball game where it purports to show bribery in action, despite having being swept under the carpet by those in power at the time, but there is so much more to see here. The ever-changing Dawson city landscape and the changing fortunes of its inhabitants over the years is joyful, and sometimes sorrowful, to watch. It is truly a brilliant way of using archaeological discovery and presenting it to the masses (not having the same audience haul as Indiana Jones of course but still…)

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5

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The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee (2017, Kunhardt Films and HBO)
Directed by John Maggio; Produced by Sheila Nevins, Richard Cohen, Jacqueline Glover, Peter W. Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

As the title explains, this HBO documentary concerns itself with the charismatic real-life character of Ben Bradlee, who was the executive editor of the Washington Post between 1968 and 1991. A lot of feature films go hand in hand with this documentary: JFK (the fallout of the assassination of Bradlee’s good friend), Jackie (the moments after the assassination as experienced by Kennedy’s wife – Bradlee is played by Eric Soubelet), All the President’s Men (the breaking of the Watergate Scandal by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodword – Bradlee is famously portrayed by Jason Robards) and The Post (the attempted release of the Pentagon Papers – Bradlee is played here by Tom Hanks). You could summarise this documentary as being a combined re-telling of the events from these feature films through actual footage. But with a more personalised tone.

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Many critics have commented on HBO’s treatment of Bradlee and it has not all been positive. Some say it is a Democrat-driven puff piece with a loose narrative that is fully committed to portraying Bradlee as a hero, forever to be remembered as the man who brought down Richard Nixon. Now I am not a Republican supporter. Far fucking from it. But there is some truth to this statement. There is a lot of aggrandisement of the man thrown around willy-nilly. When it is necessary to go into the nitty-gritty moments of his life, we are quickly hauled back out of it and forced to acknowledge his charismatic traits instead. As an example, the murder of his sister-in-law in 1965 and her alleged affair with JFK is only briefly alluded to. It is of some discomfort to learn afterwards that Bradlee divulged very limited information under oath at the trial of her murder, but in his mid-1990s memoir, he revealed that he had given her personal diary to the CIA to be destroyed and thus concealed this information from the trial. The documentary contrarily chooses to overlook this.

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Having said that, Bradlee was indeed a very strong-willed and admirable journalist. His politics aligned with the Kennedys right from the beginning of his career and his friendship with JFK certainly helped his rise to prominence in journalism, eventually becoming editor of The Washington Post in 1968. It is no surprise that when Nixon was elected in 1969, he would have been very wary of this particular man’s role at the top of a powerful news organisation. For Nixon to have been caught on record saying that Bradlee was ‘a mean bastard’ is not a total show-stopper. It makes sense. After all, the Republican Nixon Administration took over the White House after eight years of Democratic presidencies under Kennedy and Johnson. ‘Tricky Dicky’ went about to try and dismantle the entrenchments of power under the oppositions’ ideologies, and one of his focuses was on journalism. Obviously, as Watergate turned out, this was to be his undoing. Bradlee and his journalists at The Washington Post had way more integrity and honesty in their corner than the President had. Eventually the American public were enlightened to this fact. It took two years after the Watergate Scandal for him to resign but the work of Woodward and Bernstein, under the consent of Bradlee, was pivotal. I suppose you can watch All the President’s Men to ‘catch all that’ but this documentary covers it in fascinating detail too. Although both Woodward and Bernstein are featured as talking heads here (with their weeping praise for their now-deceased editor), the documentary still appears to embellish Bradlee with the most praise in the whole spectacle.

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There is an emotive and personal focus to Bradlee’s story, and it’s not all neat and tidy. This I think prompts the documentary to be somewhat more wholesome. As the story progresses, we learn that Bradlee dumped two wives in his lifetime for younger ‘mark-ups’. The wife he stayed with up until his death in 2014 was 20 years younger than him and worked as a part-time journalist at the Post until Bradlee fell for her. No surprise then that her career burgeoned when he started an affair and subsequently divorced his second wife. There is a heartfelt moment when in an interview in the mid-1990s, he says that the biggest regret in his life was to hurt his first two wives. As well it should be! Unfortunately, these women are not interviewed in the documentary and the focus is rather on his third wife and their son, which sort of makes everything hollow and melancholy. But on a whole, the documentary still works for what it intends to do. Bradlee was a flawed humanist who had a goal of presenting honest and factual-driven news to the world. He managed to do this. I guess at the end of the day, it is a timely documentary to engage with, considering the war on respected journalism that the current Commander-in-Cringe is waging. In Bradlee’s words, present-day journalists should take heed: ‘We hunker down and go about our business, which is not to be loved but to go after the truth.’

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5

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