Thomas Frank’s Bestseller Gets the Doc Treatment in What’s the Matter With Kansas?


Early in this mildly involving riff on Thomas Frank’s nonfiction bestseller, the author appears at a bookstore signing to summarize his starting point: How did the Republican Party convince middle America’s working folks to vote for candidates and an agenda that harm their own interests? Once stated, however, the thesis (along with Frank) vanishes. Instead of a historical or investigative approach aimed at conveying a big picture through a particular frame, Joe Winston’s film follows two conservative families and a liberal farmer in the months leading up to the 2006 midterm elections. There’s little incident or drama, but the subtle structure and elegant editing build to the pointed insight that the vast gulf in the country isn’t between right and left but between secular and religious. Wisely, Winston includes only a couple of the narrow-minded comments that provoke viewers to snort, jeer, and jettison their empathy. Carefully cultivating a nonjudgmental tone that’s largely free of condescension—no small achievement, when the itinerary includes a trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky—the filmmaker’s approach pays off in the final reel, when everyone’s dilemmas touch us. Paradoxically, the movie feels dated in the sense that it pre-dates both the recession and Obama’s campaign, yet prescient in illuminating a crisis that plagues us today.