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Hot Docs 2017: “Playing God,” “Bring the Jews Home,” “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” “PACmen”

“My life is over,” replies an elderly man to Kenneth Feinberg, the notorious attorney in charge of assigning a dollar value to deceased Americans. He often listens to the Met Opera in between hearing tales of operatic woe, and this man’s story is no exception. After his son escaped from the Pentagon on 9/11, he ran back in to save his sister, whom he didn’t know had also escaped. The man’s son ended up perishing in the building, causing Feinberg to respond, “I know how you feel.” It’s no surprise that these words proved to be offensive for the bereaved father, considering that Feinberg couldn’t begin to understand how any victims seeking compensation must feel. His job requires him to view these people as numbers on a chart, judging their worth based not on their degree of suffering, but on their income level. The guilty party will always pay more if the victim happens to be a stockbroker as opposed to a soldier or a firefighter. 

It’s a testament to the even-handed tone of “Playing God,” Karin Jurschick’s riveting profile of Feinberg, that its subject comes across as halfway reasonable when bluntly discussing the cold calculations of his judgments. Though he had dreams of becoming an actor in his youth, his father encouraged him to utilize his performance skills in the courtroom. With his Bernie Sanders-esque accent and tireless efforts to make each victim feel as if their grievances aren't being ignored, Feinberg’s purported honestly seems credible—until he is grilled on the topic of who is paying him. When he is confronted about the conflict of interest regarding his compensation of victims impacted by the BP oil spill, his answer is so slippery that you’d break your neck trying to tread on it. No matter how much Feinberg blathers on about his objectivity, there’s no way he can be independent of BP if they are signing his checks. He isn’t heartless so much as he is willfully blind to the reality of everyday Americans, failing to believe that oil spill victims in the Gulf were in “dire circumstances.” As long as the evidence of the damage remains on the bottom of the ocean basin rather than clouding the water’s surface like a biblical plague, BP executives can rest assured that they will have their lives back. 

When Feinberg is praised as a heroic figure, he asserts that his decisions are bound entirely by the law. An undocumented immigrant who lost her job after 9/11 cries tears of joy after Feinberg’s compensation enables her to continue on the path toward citizenship, though the attorney admits this was possible solely because the law was worded to assist “people” rather than “citizens.” The most alarming and timely section of the film focuses on Feinberg’s special employment at the Treasury Department to review a plan for cutting retiree benefits. This plan would reduce the pensions that had been promised to hard-working Americans, forcing them to live the remainder of their days like Sisyphus—pushing an enormous boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again. Jurschick interviews a retiree whose family's history of Alzheimer’s disease motivated him to set aside money in order to ensure that his wife will be able to afford his nursing home expenses. Under the proposed plan, his wife will wind up penniless and on Social Security, which could easily be eliminated as well. 

Feinberg matter-of-factly explains to Jurschick that the pension fund will soon go bankrupt, due to the fact that there is more money going out than in. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, an agency established to ensure the fund wouldn’t run out, is itself underfunded, raising questions as to where all the money went. This story thread is so enraging that the film never fully recovers every time it cuts away from it, delaying its resolution until the final moments. Feinberg’s thespian instincts are on full display as he charges confidently into a room filled with disgruntled employees assembled for one of numerous town hall meetings. The attorney encourages as many of them to speak as possible within the time allotted, promising to the pleading masses that he will make the correct decision about their fate. His role encompasses not only the judge and jury, but the executioner as well. No wonder he is so fatigued after a day in the death chamber. When retirees hail him for voting down the proposed pension plan, Feinberg coolly notes, “I’ve just delayed the day of reckoning.” 

Happiness can often be found in having a sense of purpose, even if it is at the expense of others. Koen Carlier, the central figure of Eefje Blankevoort and Arnold van Bruggen’s “Bring the Jews Home,” finds fulfillment in being a “fisher” of souls, plucking them out of their natural habitat in order to relocate them “whether they like it or not.” He was born and raised in Belgium, but decided to move to the Ukraine after seeing a sign on the side of the road that read, “Pioneer.” Suddenly, he became inspired to convince all the Jewish people in the Ukraine—and eventually, the world—to move to Israel, in order to bring about the Second Coming. Like his fellow radicals at Christians For Israel, Carlier’s views differ with those of the Jewish people regarding who the Messiah might be, though he’s banking on the return of Jesus as a twist ending that will confirm the truth of his faith. 

The president of Christians For Israel, Rev. William J.J. Glashouwer, doesn’t mince words in explaining that no group holds claim over Israel except the Jewish people, and that purging all other people from the land is not about destruction but “purification,” a term famously used by the Nazis. Of course, what Christians For Israel’s “purge” is really about is their need for control and division, manipulating the world in order to fit their self-fulfilling prophecy of mankind’s demise. It’s impossible to dismiss the madness of their conviction, since it is shared by people like Steve Bannon, who has stated his belief that we are living in the End Times. Production companies in the U.S. such as Pure Flix and Affirm Films have been churning out hate-mongering propaganda designed to “otherize” anyone who doesn’t share their right-wing Christian beliefs, while calling for a governmental takeover by religious extremists (the final moments of “War Room” essentially foreshadowed the election of Trump).

Blankevoort and Bruggen’s film could’ve been mistaken for a propaganda picture itself if its frantic editing and ominous score weren’t so anxiety-inducing. Carlier has a seemingly genial composure, but reverberating just beneath the surface is an ever-present frustration. “Turn off your phone,” he quietly orders an elderly woman, while straining to convince her to leave the comfort of her home to reside in one of the most volatile regions on the planet. When the Ukrainian conflict heats up, Carlier can barely contain his glee in pointing out that Israel will likely offer no less danger, with the added bonus of salvation. His colleagues joke about him being a Moses-like figure, but that is essentially how he sees himself, as he escorts families to the airport with one-way tickets that will bar them from return. Various people that he tries to sway cite health problems as their reason for staying put. One family finally caves in to Carlier’s orders despite the fact that their son is disabled, and when their plane lands in sun-dappled Tel Aviv, the boy looks out the window and gasps, “Mommy, we’re in heaven!” Expect to see that scene in the film's Pure Flix adaptation. 

The victim complex of modern Christian fanatics was once believed to be the last cry of a dying ideology before progress, tolerance and intelligence snuffed it out, but this film (as well as the next two in this dispatch) prove that there is still a great battle to be waged between those who seek to unite humanity and those who want to “purify” it. If your actions are informed purely by your belief that they are a part of God’s plan, then nothing can stop you, not even your rationality.

Few challenges are more daunting than engaging an entire room of sleepy-eyed junior high kids. No wonder my teachers were so often prone to popping in a VHS of “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.” As soon as the wacky host delved into his latest irreverent yet informative lesson, his nonstop exuberance was downright infectious for me and my peers. I’ll never forget the episode about the cosmos that featured a montage of people looking at the night sky and simply uttering, “Wow.” I decided to do the same thing that night, and when I stopped to look—really look—at the wondrous expanse hovering over our heads at all times, it awakened me to the mysteries of our existence that are so often taken for granted. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers, but their pursuit for knowledge is an honest one, utilizing the evidence that our species has gleaned during our time on Earth to bring us closer to understanding our place in the solar system. 

There hasn’t been a more urgent time for voices of reason to be included in the national discourse than our current era of “alternative facts.” That is why David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s “Bill Nye: Science Guy” is as compelling a film as it is a frustrating one. It pays lip service to Nye’s legacy as an icon of children’s education, but spends the majority of its screen time chronicling the celebrity’s debates with high-profile climate deniers, who occasionally manage to hijack the film from its titular subject. It’s easy to see why Nye would accept the challenge to debate a fundamentalist like Ken Ham, whose answer to every question is, “I’m a Christian.” Yet by showing up at Ham’s monuments of ignorance, such as the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park, Nye is bringing them undeserved publicity while inadvertently legitimizing their lies. The filmmakers suggest that Nye’s hunger for fame may be driving him to act against his better interests, yet the film is too unfocused to make this observation anything other than a disconnected thread.

Nye grows uncharacteristically curt during an interview with a neuroscientist studying the effect of fame on the brain. His deflection of her personal questions hints at the difficulty Alvarado and Sussberg may have had in crafting a more intimate portrait of the man beneath the cheery persona. Some of the most touching moments revolve around Nye’s family roots, particularly when he stops to bask in the glow of nostalgia emanating from a jukebox as it plays a tune routinely sung by his beloved mother. His family’s genetic problem of “ataxia,” which effects motor coordination, caused him to avoid having children of his own. When he found himself unaffected by the disorder well into his adulthood, he used his good fortune to fuel him toward leaving a positive impact on the world. One wishes the film had delved more into Nye’s work as CEO of the Planetary Society, where he’s launching solar sails that could potentially be a game-changer in space travel. We also get an all-too-brief visit to crumbling glaciers providing irrefutable evidence that climate change is real and must be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, the film’s third act wastes an inordinate amount on Nye’s misguided efforts to talk sense into Joe Bastardi, an insufferable meteorologist whose fixation on body-building speaks volumes about where the brunt of his attention lies. The insipid marathon of misinformation on Fox News is laid bare in an excerpt of Bastardi chatting with a news anchor who uses words like “thingamajig” in his questions affirming the “myth” of climate change, while cutting to a story about the pitfalls of fracking prevention. Bastardi has no problem telling off Nye to his face, but when invited to a debate in front of well-informed students, he ducks out, though his son—who was a “Science Guy” fan in his youth—shows up. He listens silently to much of Nye’s solo chat with the kids, but when his former hero encourages the kids to connect and converse with their peers who deny climate change, the boy gets up and leaves in a huff. No matter how noble Nye’s intentions, even he can’t change the mind of an empty chair. 

A prime customer for Ken Ham’s creationist playground would likely be found in the prayer team leader for Ben Carson’s failed presidential campaign, who asks that witchcraft, spells and Satan be prayed away from her “godly” candidate. She is one of many curious figures on display in Luke Walker’s “PACmen,” a film about the two super PACs that were behind Carson’s unusual and ultimately humiliating run for office. Though it is far too early to have a definite documentary about last year’s election, this film doesn’t even attempt to be a definitive film about Carson, the extraordinarily gifted neurosurgeon who has a tendency to sound lobotomized whenever he opens his mouth. His claim that the Holocaust would’ve been prevented had the Jewish people been armed, or that Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids in order to store grain, would’ve been unprecedented insanity in any other election cycle, had Trump not changed the game. The President-elect took full advantage of the easily distracted 24-hour news cycle, baiting it by being as ugly as possible (“I’m gonna bomb the s—t outta them, I don’t care!” he once exclaimed to roars from the crowd) and thus being rewarded with more airtime than President Obama, who shrunk into an afterthought long before inauguration day arrived. 

Trump used the media to win, and now that he has, he wants to disseminate all traces of it, accusing journalists of spreading fake news—which he certainly wasn’t above doing when he bad-mouthed his political opponents with tabloid fodder. The precedent of bad behavior that Trump has set makes Carson look rather quaint by contrast. John Philip Sousa IV (no joke), chairman of the 2016 Committee super PAC collecting small donations for Carson, was entirely convinced that his candidate had the evangelical vote in the bag, and is stunned when the majority of faith-based voters flock toward Trump (“He wouldn’t know the Bible if it hit him the head,” Sousa grunts in disgust). Meanwhile, Terry Giles of the Extraordinary America super PAC (targeting wealthy donors) reveals behind closed doors that his self-righteous rhetoric masks the desire to prevent the election of a president that would “take what we have and distribute it to others.”

If “PACmen” had spent more time behind the scenes, examining how the profit-minded people in power duped churchgoers into electing an outsider puppet controlled by corporate interests, it might’ve been more illuminating. As its stands, there isn’t a whole lot to glean from this film, apart from what we already know. A majority of screen time is given to Carson’s plucky on-the-ground supporters walking door-to-door while blaming his plummeting poll numbers on mere media distortion. Though Carson was indeed ahead of Trump early on in the race, an uncorroborated story in his memoir, A More Perfect Union, was the first of many missteps that began chipping away at his credibility. The film’s comedically jaunty score is way overdone, as if inviting the audience to guffaw at ineptitude that isn’t much of a laughing matter, no matter how absurd it gets (in short, this is no “Weiner”). 

Perpetually lost in the mix is Carson himself, which I suppose makes sense, since he never really looked certain of where he was going. He’s always framed in the distance, never once being approached by the filmmakers themselves. The most revealing footage is of him being cued onstage for a debate, yet even after he’s been introduced, he inexplicably chooses to remain offstage, allowing the other candidates to move past him. I loved the moment when one of his supporters publicly calls out Sousa for doing Carson a disservice, pushing him to run for office without caring whether or not he was prepared. 

After a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed unlimited money to be raised by corporations for candidates, we should brace ourselves for plenty more candidates like Carson, who remains an enigma forever at war with himself. After clearly stating that he has “no government experience” and no desire to “cripple the presidency,” he accepted Trump’s offer to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, allowing him to sit next to the president as he delivered the most embarrassing Black History Month speech in the history of our nation. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a man who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom only to be cynically reduced to a human prop. If only he had listened to his brain and said no. 

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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