Images from campaign ads for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Whom amongst us would ever contend that, in documentary filmmaking, the bombastic approach works best? Just a few might accuse Michael Moore of such tendencies, but I think his persona and use of humor often change that equation. I’m less forgiving of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America or Bill Maher’s 2008 film, Religulous. I found both documentaries bull-headed, unfair and therefore largely unpleasant to watch.

Unfortunately, in election season, bombast is the standard. I’d like to think it’s the opposite — democracy at work, and all that — but there’s something so distasteful about being in America during election time. If you look at the ads that both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are putting out, you know that subtlety and finesse have been tossed out the window.

Here’s a sampling of Romney campaign ads:


It’s Just Not Getting Better

American Crossroads: “At Stake”

And here are three ads from the Obama campaign:


Big Bird

Made in Ohio

Is it fair to refer to these little 30- and 60-second ditties as nonfiction filmmaking? That would be an insult to the form. They are in that ugly area between fact, fiction and advocacy — otherwise known as propaganda.

It’s instructive to look at non-political ads as a contrast. I came to this conclusion when I watched two commercials recently, back-to-back, at the gym, and I thought they read just like election ads — even though they were not. Watch them and see what you think:

Doesn’t that Ameriprise commercial read totally like a Romney ad? Tommy Lee Jones just looks like he’s cut from the same cloth as Romney — similar hairline, complexion, and that lining of hayseed Americana. I can almost see Mitt riding on a horse over to Tommy Lee and the two of them having a coffee while leaning on that fence. And then we hear Tommy Lee talking about “not taking the bailout,” which sure sounds like anti-Obama big government messaging. And when he adds that he believes “in a future that is better than today,” well, it sounds like he’s ready for Romney to give it a try.

But, wait, then doesn’t that ad for UCLA’s Extension “Empowered” program starring a medley of Hollywood liberal do-gooders — including Cuba Gooding, James Franco, Sally Field (Norma Rae!) — telling us to “wake up!” read as totally pro-Obama? (“Wake up” is a slogan that feature and doc director Spike Lee, a big Obama supporter, has used in his movies. I do not know who directed the UCLA ad but it smacks of a Spike Lee Joint.) And they remind us with uplifting but empathetic expressions that “this won’t happen magically,” a key subtext to the Obama campaign, which is that he came into the presidency with a country that was half-broken by his predecessors.

Together, I felt the TV speaking to me from each side of the political spectrum. (The Ameriprise ad was directed by renowned documentary director, Errol Morris, by the way.) And as creepy as that was, I so much more appreciated the subtlety of the messaging.

And that was my takeaway: the non-direct message can have so much more staying power than a head-on collision. Not that either campaign would heed such instruction. And they probably understand the American voter a whole lot better than I do.

Too bad that nuance has no place in today’s American political discourse. It’s balls-to-the-wall until November 6.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen