Now Playing! Journalism and Activism Light up the Home Screen

Skyler Gisondo as Ben in 'The Social Dilemma.' (Courtesy Netflix)

Fall is usually the serious season in the movie business—as in serious themes, not serious money. The big dollars won’t roll in till Halloween horror week and Christmas escapist week, and potentially for a few Oscar wannabes. Barring, that is, an escalated public-health crisis and civil society catastrophe. But we can be optimistic, right?

While Hollywood waits, watches and worries about the state of moviegoing, serious documentaries are everywhere. It’s an election-year phenomenon, to be sure: Filmmakers are determined to not just inform people about a social issue, but to drive us to vote. The slender lines between journalism and activism, and activism and diatribes, are in plain sight.

The Social Dilemma
Streaming on Netflix

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral) constructed his environmental documentaries on breathtaking, globe-hopping visuals, so it’s quite a come-down to be stuck in stark, unfurnished rooms with a parade of earnest talking heads. The Social Dilemma, which lifts the curtain on the various curses of social media, is especially annoying for those of us who were bored to numbness 20 years ago (or more) by the “wisdom” and “vision” of tech boy wonders with bad haircuts.

The filmmaker rounds up a retinue of former executives and high-level engineers from the usual suspect companies who’ve seen the light—actually, the darkness—of algorithmic persuasion, behavioral manipulation, smartphone addiction and adolescent maladjustment.

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These successful, smug men (the Greek chorus does include one female techie and a couple female professors, who only serve to underline Silicon Valley’s homogeneity), who profited enormously from the rise of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest and others, sound the alarm on platforms and devices. Surely it’s coincidental that the mavens now have children whose access to platforms and devices they carefully manage and restrict.

As a respite from the parade of interviews, Orlowski intersperses the hokey but effective drama of an imaginary suburban family whose youngest, impressionable members are mesmerized by the beeps, buzzes and likes emitted by their smartphones. The Social Dilemma makes some valuable points, but Orlowski seems oblivious to a major contradiction: His cautionary immersion in the psychology of manipulation employs a wall-to-wall soundtrack to keep the viewer on edge.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, the haircuts haven’t improved since 1995.

Stacey Abrams in 'All In: The Fight For Democracy.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

All In: The Fight for Democracy
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

It can be hard to discern if the numerous political documentaries released in recent weeks are aimed at the hardcore base of informed newsies or the broader population that sees the effects of policies but isn’t interested in the behind-the-scenes battles. Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés’s documentary about the organized efforts to suppress votes going back to the end of Reconstruction skillfully speaks to both groups.

Stacey Abrams, who would have won the election for governor of Georgia two years ago except for her Republican opponent’s multi-pronged strategy to screw hundreds of thousands of voters out of their rights, is our clear-eyed guide through this illuminating, infuriating doc. But author and historian Carol Anderson steals the show as the film’s righteous, impassioned conscience.

The Abrams campaign and the theft of that election in broad daylight comprise the emotional climax of All In. The film’s centerpiece, however, which Garbus and Cortés spotlight with a megawatt bulb, is the Roberts Court’s 2013 gutting of the long-standing Voting Rights Act. A must-see, but keep your blood-pressure medicine nearby.

Kerry Morrison in 'Miracle in the Desert.' (Courtesy of the filmmakers)

Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea
Opens Sept 22 on VOD

As a transplant from another state, I discovered California’s largest lake from Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s wildly entertaining tale of the boom and bust of a mid-20th-century SoCal leisure spot. They hung out with the forgotten holdovers, beach rats and off-the-grid survivors who stayed in their homes long after the world passed by.

Fifteen years on, Greg Bassenian takes a much more sober approach to the same territory. Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea contains the same footage of 1950s water skiers and the snazzy yacht club where Sinatra and other celebrities from Los Angeles (150 miles northwest of the sea) and Palm Springs (30 miles) hung out, but its real concern is ecological and environmental.

The Salton Sea keeps shrinking, which means more of the lakebed is exposed, more dust is launched into the air and the public health consequences continue to increase. Bassenian builds a persuasive case for California’s immediate adoption and funding of a plan to increase the sea’s water level, then slides into a sustained harangue for the last 10 minutes of the film. To be fair, his various interviewees’ frustration with the state’s prolonged inaction is completely understandable.

The current problem and its solution should rightly command our attention. But I took a second moral from Bassenian’s detailed chronicle of the sea’s origins and evolution, which amounts to a catalog of hubris, corruption, unintended consequences and natural disasters: Man has a way of mucking things up. You guessed it: Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea doesn’t leave you feeling optimistic.