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Tribeca Review: “America’s Burning”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 12th, 2024

Still from AMERICA’S BURNING. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

America’s Burning (David Smick, 2024) 1 out of 5 stars

The United States of America feels more divided than ever, with people on the right and left of the political spectrum at each other’s throats. Would that we could all come together and be, as our country’s aspirational name requests, unified around a common mission. Why must our politicians and population insist on wallowing in discord, rather than harmony?

This is the question posed by America’s Burning, a new documentary from filmmaker David Smick (Stars and Strife). And it’s a reasonable one. Except for one glaring issue: at the present moment, in the USA, there is only one major political party in thrall to right-wing fascism that threatens to dismantle our institutions and possibly our entire system of governance, ignoring the safeguards built into the Constitution. Both sides, in other words, are very much not equal. To suggest that is to offer a specious argument.

But in the world of America’s Burning, ideas matter less than a dangerous reductionism, simplifying the very real and substantive philosophical differences between the two parties to make it seem as if the only reason disagreement exists is because immature personalities cannot calm themselves down. I most insistently disagree. I concur that the current state of affairs in the country is lamentable—even incendiary—but the why and the how, not to mention the what to do about it, is far more complicated than it appears here.

Veteran actor and producer (he’s also a producer here) Michael Douglas narrates, adopting a kind of finger-wagging approach, lamenting the lack of civility in the quotidian management of our government, culture, and media (especially the social kind). He’s not wrong: these are all terrible in this 21st-century of ours, but, again, the scolding ignores the contrasts in behavior from certain ideologues. If someone wants to deny your access to health care or even your right to exist, it is not an unreasonable response to adopt offense as defense. Sure, wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along? Of course, but that is a naïve proposition in the face of bad faith.

A lot of this seems like quintessential Capra-corn, that pejorative assigned to the films of the great director of classic Hollywood, Frank Capra (whose movies I happen to enjoy). In works like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra fought for “the little guy” in the face of capitalist greed. The stories inspire, but the breakdown of how the world actually works within them is often superficial to a fault.

So, too, are Smick’s own illustrations of our crises, up to and including the bold text he flashes on screen to underline certain points and, especially, his fanciful what-if scenarios of a possible new civil war or, even better, a vision of what a president who would unite the country might look like. When you start your discussion, as he does in America’s Burning, likening Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama based on their similar rhetoric of bringing people together, you reveal how little you understand of the basic policies of both men. Why should we listen to anyone with such a poor command of history?

It was Ronald Reagan, after all, with his tax cuts for the wealthy and other anti-New Deal policies, who began the shrinking of the middle class that is now a massive problem (which, to Smick’s credit, he acknowledges, but without recognizing how it started). But look at who Smick puts on screen to compare Reagan to Obama: The Atlantic’s Arthur Brooks, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, that bastion of right-wing conservative thought. No wonder.

Many of the commentators here are of similar ilk, or centrist Democrats who would no doubt find a home in the currently abandoned No Labels party. We have Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, everybody’s favorite “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville, historian Niall Ferguson (of another conservative thinktank, the Hoover Institution), and, perhaps the most offensive, billionaire investor Ken Langone, a deeply partisan donor to the Republican Party whose policy priorities are to prevent anything remotely resembling government aid to be put into effect. I’m not sure why he gets to lecture the rest of us about civility. In general, these ostensible experts on American society do not represent a very wide swath of opinions on what ails us. 

There are a few others, including Black Lives Matter activist Hawk Newsome, but the general attitude is one of smug reproach. Again, they’re not incorrect: the system is broken. But telling everyone to make nice when one side wants to subvert the democratic process or enact laws to erase important civil-rights gains of the last 60 years is rich, indeed.

Smick could have had his Kumbaya moment and offended less if only he had broadened his talking heads beyond the center-right collection he puts on display, and perhaps brought in some younger folks beyond the token few he has. In addition, he could provide more researched explanations of the root causes of our potential apocalypse. America is burning, but adding the fuel of disinformation to the fire does not help.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

6 thoughts on “Tribeca Review: “America’s Burning”

  1. This nation has struggled, argued, fought for years. Since the beginning we have been “going in the wrong direction.” Only white male landowners voted; listing slaves as only certain percentage for census; gradually destroying native peoples and their culture…the list persists. Now we want to ignore that his/herstory and more.
    Consider what Barbara Tuchman explained in such stark and detailed reality: the march of folly; woodenheadedness triumphs!
    Perhaps start by acknowledging this truth in every conversation; proclaim humility and honesty as essential.

  2. Christopher Llewellyn Reed, your far left, one sided, narrow minded, radical, fangs are showing! Talk about misinformation and hate filled rhetoric! You don’t even agree with Douglas, who is about as far left as they come. Your comment that “there is only one major political party in thrall to right-wing fascism that threatens to dismantle our institutions and possibly our entire system of governance, ignoring the safeguards built into the Constitution” is absolutely absurd. Leave it to people like you to accuse the Right party of the very things the Left is actually doing. I’m so glad people are finally waking up to this reality.
    Anyone who agrees with your opinions must also watch MSNBC, CNN, ABC and LOVE the women of The View!

    The only ones who “want to subvert the democratic process or enact laws to erase important civil-rights gains of the last 60 years” are people like you!

      1. There you have it. Straight out of Hillary’s playbook. Good luck trying to “deprogram” over half of the country (and still growing)!

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