Larry Craig

Dir. Kirby Dick
(2009, R, 89 min)
★ ★ ★

“I think I should just keep my mouth shut. Call me in ten years and I’ll tell you a story.” — Kelly Crosby Heyniger, responding to the claim that her ex-boyfriend, Florida governor Charlie Crist, is gay

Washington, we’re told, is gayer than San Francisco, but its closet door is nailed shut. Our nation’s capital, an insulated mecca of political ambition, is steeped in a tradition of going along to get along, and identity runs a distant second to job security. A lot of those gay staffers operating under the radar — or sometimes very visibly on the radar — are working against gay rights, whether they believe in it or not. Why? Because every year is election year.

Outrage is a stirring and important film, though by its very nature a problematic documentary. To identify the closeted politicians it profiles, it uses supposition, circumstantial evidence, hearsay, and unsubstantiated and sometimes anonymous testimonials. Do I believe its claims? I easily believe most of them; the claims pile up, and who has greater incentive to lie? And in the age of Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and Mark Foley, who among these anti-gay politicos has earned the benefit of the doubt? But what does the film really accomplish, other than to reiterate and amplify pre-existing rumors?

The moral question under discussion here, other than the hypocrisy of gay politicians who hide behind their anti-gay voting records, is whether the media has the right to out anyone. The media seems sensitive to the topic, I think overly so. In my opinion, it extends to a skittishness and timidity among news outlets in general. These days, many politicians are allowed to invent their own facts, because to correct them might be interpreted as bias; when Sarah Palin’s book was fact-checked by the Associated Press, she referred to it as “opposition research,” because to correct her inaccuracies is to be complicit in a left-wing agenda.

Similarly, the media takes a hands-off approach to closeted homosexuals. They have a right to privacy, don’t they? But when a person’s sexual orientation is directly relevant to, and diametrically opposed to, his policies, does he have a right to his hypocrisy? When a strict family-values conservative is found to have committed adultery, he is not given a free pass: South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment as a Congressmen, was revealed to be a moral and political hypocrite when his extramarital affair was revealed last year. Should gay politicians, then, be allowed to conduct private lives in direct opposition to their public principles? Would you believe me if I told you the sky was green, or would you look up?

The filmmakers suggest that the news media is skittish about this particular brand of political hypocrisy because, like the politicians themselves, they are infected with a deep-seated homophobia. They are not colluding to protect these politicians. They are going out of their way to avoid homosexuality — a dirty little secret far more indecent than, say, an Argentinian mistress, a love child, or a presidential affair.

But then how to explain the aforementioned Craig, Haggard, and Foley scandals, each widely reported by news outlets. Those were cases where hard evidence made them impossible to ignore, but then, so were the Sanford, Clinton, and John Edwards affairs. How many straight politicians are still keeping their own hypocrisies secret? I don’t know; nobody has made a movie about them.

I struggle to reconcile the film’s worthy message with its limited effectiveness. It alludes to a conspiracy without ever really illuminating one. There’s a media blackout, we’re told. There are testimonials about gossip magazines quashing gay scandals. And there’s one truly compelling piece of evidence: Bill Maher names a Republican strategist suspected to be closeted on CNN’s Larry King Live, but a rebroadcast excises Maher’s accusation. However, the methods and rationale of the conspiracy remain matters of speculation. Director Kirby Dick and his film’s participants report on the fire by showing us mostly smoke. “How it burns!” they tell us with righteous anger. “If only you could see it.”

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