A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits

One of the American Left’s knights in shining armor, Greg Palast, is back with a new film. The trench coat, fedora-wearing Palast is to investigative reporting what Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, is to detective novels. In The Best Democracy Money Can Buy Palast wears out the shoe leather, pounding far flung proverbial pavements, from the Arctic Circle to way down South in the land of cotton to America’s heartland in Kansas to the Sunshine State to posh East Coast enclaves in Manhattan and the Hamptons to the West Coast (where Palast and Marlowe were both born) to the Congo, Venezuela and beyond, our man Palast is hot on the trail of the film’s subtitled Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.

The multifaceted Best Democracy Money Can Buy covers lots of ground, but its central focus is an alleged nefarious conspiracy to nullify the votes of at least 1 million mostly minority people going to the polls. This purported GOP plot is codenamed “Crosscheck” and as presented, it’s nothing less than a 21st century high tech version of nullification — the extreme pro-states’ rights legal theory that individual states have the right to invalidate federal laws a state has deemed “unconstitutional.” Best Democracy argues that the constitutional guarantee under assault by Crosscheck is nothing less than voting rights, along with the historic act passed in 1965 by Congress to ensure nonwhite citizens’ ability to cast their ballots. Palast condemns this scurrilous scheme as “lynching by laptop.”

According to press notes, this complex computerized vote stealing ploy “is controlled by a Trump henchman, Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State who claims his computer program has identified 7.2 million people in 29 states who may have voted twice in the same election — a felony crime. The catch? Most of these ‘suspects’ are minorities — in other words, mainly Democratic voters. Yet the lists and the evidence remain ‘confidential’.”

Somehow, the cinematic sleuth manages to get his mitts (and I don’t mean Romney) on the top secret data and the Sherlockian Palast deduces that Crosscheck is targeting minorities because the family names it targets across state lines are disproportionately those of nonwhites, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. For instance, Jackson is a common moniker for African Americans, while Park is widespread nomenclature for people of Korean ancestry, just as Garcia is for Hispanics and so on: Elementary, my dear Palast.

Soon, as Holmes said, “the game is afoot!” and the globetrotting hardboiled dick is off on the road to the Sunflower State. There Palast manages to confront Crosscheck’s purported Professor Moriarty and mastermind, Kobach, despite the fact that the Kansan official, whom the film portrays as a Wichita lie man (my sincere apologies to Glen Campbell), had declined repeated interview requests. Nevertheless, using hidden camera technology Palast tackles the Crosschecker at an ice cream social where Greg is eventually given the old heave-ho as if he’s Uncle Ho. (In the immortal words of Judy Garland as Dorothy: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”)

(This undercover newshound who hounds the rich and infamous has also been shown the proverbial door at swanky bashes he infiltrates. As Palast notes: “We take on JP [John Paulson, the foreclosure king —and now Trump’s sugar-daddy and advisor on the economy], the big dog who made $5 BILLION off the market collapse HE ENGINEERED… Loaded up with hidden cameras, one in my fedora, [Leni] Badpenny and I took our speedboat to JP’s fancy Hamptons’ soiree — and got our man — and confronted him with what he’s done to 35,000 GM workers whose jobs he shipped to China. From the Hamptons I jumped to another dinner — in a giant soup kitchen set up for JP’s unemployed workers, some homeless, some, as one told me, ‘thinking about committing suicide.’ The point? There is no such thing as a victimless billionaire.” The intrepid investigator has been tossed out of more joints than most journalists have ever even been invited into.)

During the almost two hour film, Palast (who authored 2011’s Vulture’s Picnic, In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High- Finance Carnivores) also embarks on epic manhunts for so-called “vulture capitalists.” Although many may consider this term redundant, vulture capitalists per se buy up bad debts for pennies on the dollar, then deploy strong-arm tactics to force Third World debtor nations to pay up – even if it means forking over funds earmarked for lifesaving needs – or else.

According to the journalistic gumshoe, “I’d been hunting Paul ‘The Vulture’ Singer [whom Palast identifies as Paulson’s partner] for BBC TV from the Andes to the Congo to Detroit and Dayton. Now the number one donor to GOP Senate candidates, The Vulture made his billions by what the U.S. Treasury called, ‘extortion.’”

In another of the film’s vignettes, a secret tape recording of a man identified as Billy Koch exposes the crimes of the other Koch brothers. And in yet another sequence, Palast encounters Etok, a feisty Inuit leader and whale hunter in Alaska. In Best Democracy Palast seems to be reworking and revisiting the scenes of various crimes he’d previously disclosed in his books and documentaries, such as the theft of the 2000 presidential election and vote caging in 2004’s Kerry versus Bush donnybrook. What is the thread that connects all of these sins in the tapestry Palast weaves in his latest film?

Connecting the dots of his cinematic intersectionality, the shamus told me: “No one steals votes to steal elections, they steal votes for the money. Singer, JP and the Kochs don’t want to be regulated, to be jailed or to be taxed. So they back candidates that will deliver their next billion.

“It was important for me not just to show vote theft, but to show you the guys who are funding the vote thieves, and their victims (Eskimos, Congolese, Delphi auto workers, foreclosed homeowners) — who, not coincidentally, are the folks whose votes they must steal.”

To do so, Palast uses poetic license in Best Democracy, pioneering a new film form. His Etok is far from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, a classic narrative about a real life Eskimo’s Arctic culture. Nor is Best Democracy’s style the same as the Cinéma Vérité of D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman or the 2016 fly-on-the-wall doc about the disgraced ex-congressman, Weiner.

This is not to say that the resourceful Palast, who co-directed Best Democracy with David Ambrose, doesn’t deploy behind the scenes techniques (it is an exposé, after all!). In terms of shooting, in addition to his fedora-cam at the Hamptons, Palast revealed: “For ‘gun and run’ scenes we used equipment best for the situation. When I tried to jump Singer in New York the second time, Rick Rowley (Academy Award nominated director/shooter with Jeremy Scahill for 2013’s Dirty Wars [and co-director of photography for Michael Moore’s 2015 Where To Invade Next]) used an iPhone 6! In undercover work, you have to keep it hidden.”

However, Palast imaginatively expands the boundaries of nonfiction film in numerous ways that are quite cinematic, inventive and witty, intended to keep a mass audience entertained, even while they are enlightened. First of all, there is that whole Philip Marlowe motion picture persona plus the casting of his chief investigator and the film’s executive producer, Leni von Eckardt-Manzoni, as the character Leni Badpenny, Palast’s partner in onscreen thought crimes who has a sort of Lotte Lenya panache. A former punk rocker in 1980s London, the Swiss-born Leni’s nom de picture is probably a cross between Badpenny’s always turning up and James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny, M’s secretary.

A number of lefty celebrities enliven the (more or less) nonfiction film. In keeping with the private eye ambiance, Ice-T and Richard Belzer (who, BTW, is a longtime conspiracy theorist) of TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit make repeat appearances. So do Rosario Dawson, Willie Nelson, plus various notables, such as late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, voting rights champion Robert Fitrakis and disgraced capitalist Michael Milken, who is identified in the end credits as “Billionaire, convicted bank fraudster, jailbird, asshole.” According to press notes, “Graham Nash re-recorded his Crosby, Stills & Nash blockbuster hit ‘Chicago,’ re-writing the words to reference Ohio, the most crucial swing state in the coming election.”

Palast admitted, “I did steal The Big Short’s idea of using celebrities to explain complex stuff — I got Ed Asner to put on a Santa suit to narrate a cartoon with the REAL story of JP and financial collapse” and to also play a billionaire. Regarding a scene reminiscent of the beloved 1946 Frank Capra favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life, Palast went on to say that the co-star of Oliver Stone’s Snowden:

“Shailene Woodley, in an echo of her Divergent character, takes me back to the house I was born in, 8413 Webb Ave., Sun Valley, the absolute worst end of the East Valley, L.A. She shows me what I came from — and that propels me today — the laid-off GM workers now living in their mobile homes, my Chicano neighbors surviving through pay-day loans. The dream scene flashes back to the leveled Delphi plant in Dayton. When I see the people screwed in Ohio, it’s my own people, of course.  ‘If you don’t speak for them, who will?’ is Shailene’s most important line (nothing scripted, all real conversation), so I have to return to the investigation which I was ready to quit. Shailene is a voice in my head of course, telling me, like Badpenny does, to get to work” and crack those electoral and corporate crimes.

Best Democracy also makes use of special effects, such as green screen, for which Palast said, “we used top-of-the-line 4K cameras.”
Most notably, the film creatively incorporates animation by Emmy Award-winning artist Keith Tucker (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?). This enhances the film’s humorousness – from his public speaking to his books, Palast is known for his wit, which also makes it easier for auds to follow his complex work about rather dark subjects.

In addition, Palast interjects classic film clips from movies such as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation. He quite cleverly includes a scene wherein a freed slave (probably a white actor in blackface) sneakily seeks to vote twice in a post-Civil War election. Palast brilliantly relates this to current (as opposed to Reconstruction Era) Republicans blathering about voter fraud by people trying to cast their ballots more than once. Best Democracy debunks this notion as a smokescreen to cover-up what it contends is the real vote rigging – ballot nullification via Operation Crosscheck.

What is one to make of Palast’s rather free film form? Purists may not, strictly speaking, regard it as a documentary – but it is certainly not a feature film. It is surely closer to being a nonfiction work, although not a docudrama per se. Palast, along with some other freewheeling filmmakers, are creating something of a hybrid genre. In homage to the great Soviet documentarian who made Kino Pravda (Film Truth) during the 1920s, I am tempted to call this neo-doc style “Palast Pravda.” In any case, it is telling that another exemplar of this trend in free form documentary filmmaking, Josh Fox – who was Oscar-nominated for 2010’s Gasland and directed the great new, highly cinematic How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change – is scheduled to do Q&As with Palast at 5:10 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. when Best Democracy premieres Sept. 23 in Manhattan’s Cinépolis Chelsea cinemas.

Be that as it may, this Gregorian chant of sorts was, according to press notes, “made in association with The Park Foundation, The Puffin Foundation and the Cloud Mountain Foundation, as well as over 1000 crowd-sourced donors. In a deal negotiated between Palast and Philippe Diaz, Cinema Libre Studio acquired U.S. rights and several international territories.”

In our political system of checks and balances, Palast represents the balance to Crosscheck and those who would steal our votes in 2016’s presidential race and beyond. Best Democracy is arguably the best pro-Civil Rights film made since 2014’s Selma. While Sir Galahad wielded a lance and Philip Marlowe a revolver, Palast is armed with a camera, proving – to paraphrase Chairman Mao – that “political power grows out of the barrel of a lens.”

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits theatrically debuts Sept. 23 at Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011 (yes – that’s right near where the recent bombing took place). See: www.cinepolisusa.com/chelsea.aspx. The film theatrically opens in Los Angeles Sept. 30. For more info about screenings, etc., see: www.gregpalast.com/.

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Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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