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Film Review: ‘Soros’

Jesse Dylan's friendly documentary about George Soros resists probing and lets the controversial billionaire's philanthropy do the talking.

Director:
Jesse Dylan

Running time: 88 MIN. 

“The Joker” is destined to be the super-villain movie of the season for most filmgoers, obviously. But there’s a certain breed of conservative that might save that honor for “Soros,” a new documentary about billionaire George Soros, the do-gooder bogeyman the right loves to hate. Dinesh D’Souza hasn’t yet gotten around to making a feature film demonizing the guy, so the task of directing the first doc about the polarizing philanthropist has fallen to an entirely sympathetic filmmaker, Jesse Dylan. Like many progressives, Dylan views Soros as something close to a superhero — a real-life Bruce Wayne who’s using his super-riches for good, not evil, as the biggest benefactor of … can we call it the Social Justice League?

Dylan couldn’t have painted a more flattering picture if he worked for Soros. Actually, he did: In the past, he’s made short films on behalf of the philanthropist’s Open Society Foundation. If that organization had a headquarters that offered tours, this is the film they’d have on continuous loop in the visitors’ center. That’s not a knock, necessarily. We could all stand to learn more about the work that’s being done in less privileged or more repressive nations. But, for all the educational value it brings, you could still wish “Soros” lived up to its singular title by probing into personality as much as policy.

For somebody who’s seen by many as being in line to ace the Antichrist primaries, Soros comes off as nearly as much of a regular guy as someone could who still has a Hungarian accent and may rank among the 1-percent’s top 1 percent. He’s written more than a dozen books about the changing needs of overlooked citizens in the new world order, and he goes on the TV talk-show circuit to talk these tomes up — not exactly hiding in the Illuminati shadows, in other words. None of the human rights issues he espouses, at least the ones discussed in the film, really seem like they’d be controversial outside a smoke-filled room full of strongmen and dictators. So it’s not immediately clear from the movie alone why Ann Coulter is calling him “one of the most evil people in the world … a Nazi collaborator, literally.” There’s an amusing clip of Glenn Beck, back in his gainfully employed Fox days, taking a homemade scroll that’s been made of all the charities Soros supports and dramatically throwing it across the studio floor, as if sheer quantity of donations should be a terrifying thing. The slightly less hyperbolic Tucker Carlson refers to him as “an anti-democratic force.”

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Carlson is the one Soros foe who agreed to come on camera for an interview with Dylan, or at least the only one who made the final cut, and when he starts into a list of Soros’ causes, words come up that you don’t hear anywhere else in the film, like “abortion.” So maybe conservative opposition to the billionaire has a little more logic to it than just hating free speech. But while the film makes hay out of the fact that Soros is the rare billionaire who doesn’t shy away from controversy in his politics, it comes up a little short on actually naming much of anything that might be a legitimately controversial position, focusing more on the sheer nutjobs who are out to slander him, many of them provoked by memes that started with Lyndon LaRouche. Although the film seems to have been done for a while — at least, there must be a reason it never invokes Trump, or Trumpism — it seems completely up to the moment when it explores the irony of Soros being yet another Jew that gentiles like to accuse of being an anti-Semite.

There is a lot of personal detail in the early, best part of the film, which explores its subject’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Budapest. Soros’ family made a deal to pass as gentile, and a friend tells a beautiful, ironic story about how George’s father gave away his hard-earned cigarettes to Jews who weren’t so fortunate, because he hoped for better interfaith relations after the war and, as a faux Christian, didn’t want to poorly represent the faith he was faking, less relations stay strained after the war. But when it comes to the modern day, Soros clams up when it comes to where his philanthropy might come from. Dylan at least brings up the idea that he might be trying to assuage guilt about being so wealthy, a suggestion Soros quickly shoots down as silly.

But if actions speak louder than anecdotes, there’s a lot of biographical volume in “Soros” after all. Dylan gets into how Soros’ wokeness really got awakened when he visited South Africa during apartheid’s ugly peak, and contemporary footage shows him wandering into poverty-stricken crowds of the class beneath the underclass to ask questions and learn more — quite a contrast to some incurious, germophobe multi-millionaires we can think of. For someone who seems uncomfortable with emotions, Soros is clearly some kind of major empath, too. That’s a slightly odd psychological intersection that clearly has benefited millions of people around the globe, even as Soros politely shuts down lines of inquiry about what kind of sublimation is feeding all these good deeds. In financing the largest human rights organization in the world, Soros is a gift-giving horse that maybe doesn’t need to be looked in the mouth so much after all.

Film Review: 'Soros'

Reviewed at the Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 31, 2019. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Vital Pictures, LLC production. Producer: Priscilla Cohen. Co-producer: Hofacre.

Crew: Director: Jesse Dylan. Camera (color): Paul Ryan. Editors: Michael Hofacre, Justin Guigno. Music: Federico Jusid.

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