Big theoretical concepts don’t usually translate well into television, which could be why this noble idea of exploring the First Amendment — a collaboration of the Sundance Channel and Court TV, which share the finished product — has such a half-baked sense about it. The first pair of four half-hour films are provocative, to be sure, but it’s mostly a platform for the usual right-baiting suspects and thus unlikely to provide viewers or the chattering classes something much to talk about.
For starters, “The War Room’s” Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob weigh in on the Fox News lawsuit filed against satirist Al Franken, but their half-hour does a poor job of illuminating any wider implications to that headline-grabbing case beyond its salutary effect on Franken’s book sales.
Indeed, Sundance aired an edited-for-TV version of Franken’s radio show through the presidential election, and this topic seems mostly more of the same, as well as a thinly veiled opportunity to poke a thumb in Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s eye. After all, even the judge makes clear there was virtually no chance the cable news net’s ill-considered claim that it controlled the phrase “fair and balanced” would halt publication of Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”
In the program’s second half-hour, director Mario Van Peebles brings visual flair to his look at New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, whose poem implying Israelis avoided the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 prompted charges of anti-Semitism, eventually causing the state’s poet laureate designation to be eliminated.
Unlike the Fox-Franken brouhaha, Van Peebles’ film at least engages in a discussion of how the most objectionable speech requires First Amendment protections. Again, though, relatively little time is allocated to those who found Baraka’s work offensive or sought to have him removed.
Two subsequent half-hours, directed by Bob Balaban and John Walter, will premiere on both Sundance and Court TV Dec. 14, examining comic Lenny Bruce’s legacy and those who assembled outside the Republican National Convention, respectively.
Yet all told, this has the feeling of a missed opportunity — something PBS has done with less sizzle, perhaps, but far more clarity. Moreover, the fact that all four films ostensibly cater to a liberal sensibility doesn’t achieve much in terms of broadening the debate.
A fuller understanding of the First Amendment is certainly a laudable goal, especially for those whose actions would casually undermine it. Still, the case for letting controversial voices ring out proves considerably less compelling and challenging when all that preaching is directed toward the choir.