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With: n/a                                          
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Joe Winston, Laura Cohen
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/15/2009
IMDB

What's the Matter with Kansas? (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Moral Quarrel

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Thomas Frank's 2004 book explored the question of how Kansas was once a center for left-wing ideals, and has now turned into a hotbed of right-wing conservatism; of course, the example of Kansas also makes a stand-in for the rest of the United States.

Directed by Joe Winston and Laura Cohen, this documentary does not simply rehash the arguments in the book. Rather, it explores further, and even if it can't find any answers, at least it strikes a kind of uneasy balance. Shot mostly in 2006 (near that year's election), the movie interviews several Kansas residents. Some are die-hard religious conservatives dedicated to striking down hot-button, fear-mongering issues like abortion and same-sex marriages. This may be the only movie in which you hear someone say, "I think George Bush is great," and actually mean it. Other residents, like Donn Teske, are farmers who have become fed up with the Bush administration and the way it has damaged the economy and the farming business.

Almost anyone in America, liberals and conservatives alike, can watch the film and agree with about half its participants, while finding the other half completely insane. This also means that viewers will find comfort about half the time, and will find their blood boiling the other half. The film provides no commentary or judgment on anyone, and even misinformation -- such as the idea that the Declaration of Independence was based on Christian ideals -- is allowed to stand without correction.

But what's really interesting about the film is that, while many political documentaries come out of the gate angry and raging, forgetting that the key to all this stuff is people, Winston and Cohen attempt to make real characters out of these folks. What's the Matter with Kansas? attempts to get to know who these people are based on something more than just their political ideals.

Yet the film does not always succeed. It tends to look down on teen Brittany Barden, who volunteers for right-wing organizations in the hopes of "returning" America to its "original Christian values." The unspoken tone behind her scenes is that hopefully she'll learn a thing or two when she grows up. On the other hand, there's church singer and farmer Angel Dillard, who may seem like a nutcase to liberal viewers. But we gradually learn some hard, painful things about her life, and our hearts go out to her; she becomes a human being.

The DVD appears to be self-distributed, and contains a bunch of extras. There's a filmmaker commentary track, and a second commentary track with author Frank. We also get a Q&A session, and deleted

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