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‘The Swamp’ Review: An HBO Documentary About Three ‘Drain the Swamp!’ Republicans Who Can’t See Their Own Swamp

A documentary looks at the corruption of Washington from the vantage of three rebel Republican congressmen. But are they heroes or hypocrites?

The Swamp
HBO

If you want to meet a Republican politician who’s the ultimate poster boy for shameless apple-polishing — the kind of eager conservative loyalist who would crawl across broken glass to shine Donald Trump’s shoes — you should watch “The Swamp,” the new HBO documentary, and get a load of Matt Gaetz, a congressman from Florida who got swept into the U.S. House of Representatives by the Trump tidal wave.

Gaetz is a real piece of work. At 38, he’s got the baby-faced, handsome-but-not-too-dashing, smile-by-committee looks and easy-talking facility of a jock bro who was popular in high school and is now a mid-level bank manager. If you had to describe what his job is, the most accurate thing to say might be that Gaetz is a congressman who plays a congressman on TV. With his Chris O’Donnell immaculateness, he’s a constant presence on Fox News and CNN, mouthing his talking points, mirroring the agenda of his right-wing overlords and, at the same time, making those points “presentable” to liberals. In the movie, we see him speak several times on the phone to President Trump, who’s always saying that Matt is “great,” that he’s got “the look,” all of which leaves Matt responding like an eager puppy.

Okay, Matt Gaetz is a telegenic flyweight Republican weasel. So what? Well, the ironic reason that he’s one of the central figures in “The Swamp” is that he has staked out the position of being a “rebel” within the Republican establishment, one who stands tall against the corruption of Washington. His official position is that he’s totally against the lobbying culture that controls everything — the special interests that have turned dark money into the sticky fuel that greases the wheels and gums up the process.

He talks a good game, and there are moments when he seems to be walking the walk. He swore off federal PAC money earlier this year, and teaming up with the Democratic California Rep. Ro Khanna he co-sponsored a bill to limit the war powers of the president. Yet even though Gaetz, in his own mind, is a crusader who stands for restoring integrity to the American political process, the gaping contradiction of all this is that he’s in bed with a president who campaigned on his own promise to “drain the swamp” — yet is, in fact, poised against that goal in every measurable way. Gaetz will yammer on about dirty money, but he’s against the regulatory side of government (he doesn’t need to be bought off by lobbyists; he already supports most of what they stand for), and when it comes to, say, Donald Trump’s coziness with the fossil-fuel industry, he says nothing. To call him a selective moralist would be kind. He’s a TV hack who has made “reform” his (fake) brand.

The last documentary directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, “Get Me Roger Stone,” was a portrait of the real-wing zealot as irresistible sleaze. It captured the staggering scale of Roger Stone’s lies and smears (and the insane pride he takes in them), showcasing Stone as the missing link between Roy Cohn and Lee Atwater. The movie chronicled his back-room influence and reveled, with a certain lip-smacking glee, in the perversely open corruption of his personality.

In “The Swamp,” DiMauro and Pehme try for a variation on the same strategy, only this time they’re dealing — by design — with minor-league hypocrites. The movie is about the culture of money that has broken Washington, as seen through the lens of three Republican congressman who claim to abhor it.

In addition to Gaetz, the film profiles Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who has his own way of talking a good game he doesn’t necessarily live up to. He’s a “green” Republican who was trained as an engineer at M.I.T., and whose farmhouse in the wilds of Kentucky is entirely solar-powered. Yet he’s not convinced that carbon dioxide emissions are a problem. Even with his science background, his views on climate change have a convenient way of dovetailing with the fossil-fuel fundamentalism of the Koch brothers, the special-interest titans who threatened any Republican with excommunication if they strayed too far from the ungreen path. Yet dammit, Thomas Massie says he wants to get the money out of the system!

Massie, a “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” buff, compares the Capitol to the Death Star and nicknames his congressional lapel pin “Precious,” saying, “I think eventually, it will turn me from a Hobbit into a Gollum.” I don’t think he realizes it’s already happening. The film’s other main figure is Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, the founding member of the Freedom Caucus, the group formed in 2015 to be “the loyal opposition within the Republican Party.” Buck votes a hardcore right-wing party line (lowering taxes for corporations, etc.), and is a staunch supporter of the gun lobby — which, in his mind, counts as an ideology, so it’s not a special interest. Get it?

These three come on as Eagle Scouts of fiscal responsibility, but essentially they stand for an abstract ideal that allows them to feel good about themselves. They’re draining their swamp and eating it too. “The Swamp” is an exposé of the selling out of Washington, and part of the offbeat way the movie works is by cozying up to these three and gaining access to the nuts and bolts of their congressional jobs, only to shine a harsh light on their hypocrisy. Yet there are moments, right up to the end, when the documentary buys into their anti-corruption stance, using them as spokesmen. And that, frankly, is a little hard to wrap your moral compass around. It’s as if someone had made a documentary about the slaughter of sheep starring a cast of wolves, all of whom claim to be against the slaughter of sheep.

“The Swamp” is full of insights and tasty details about how the culture of Washington operates. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law School professor, claims that the most important person in the history of Congress after James Madison was Newt Gingrich, who, he says, “destroyed Congress.” In the mid-’90s, after he was elected Speaker of the House, Gingrich shifted the congressional center of gravity from legislating to fund-raising, telling the newly elected members of the House to not even bother moving their families to Washington, since governing would now be placed on the back burner.

We learn about how members of Congress have to purchase their seats on committees (with a payout of $300,000 to $500,000 every election cycle). They have to kowtow to K Street just to keep swimming. And the movie makes the crucial point that the politics of hate — the showbiz gladiatorial politics of red-vs.-blue conflict that play out on a daily basis on cable news — is an extraordinary fund-raising tool. (So was impeachment.) It ties Congress up in permanent gridlock, but it generates boatloads of partisan cash.

Yet “The Swamp” is finally a documentary about too many different things, even if part of its sophistication is knowing how those things are connected. It looks at the chokehold of Washington by corporate money and the toxic gridlock of hyper-partisanship. It takes detours into school shootings and climate change. It’s about the new anti-war sentiment that has taken hold among certain Republicans (in many ways, a revival of the old isolationism). It’s about the war in the Republican Party over its own identity. On top of that, the film drags us, once again, through the impeachment of President Trump, an event too recent to need a rehash and not far enough away to gain from the perspective a good documentary can offer.

In the end, though, “The Swamp” is still well worth seeing, in part for priceless clips like the one in which Trump, during a 2016 campaign rally, talks to his frenzied supporters about how when he first used the phrase “drain the swamp,” he thought it was hokey, but “the place went crazy,” so he kept on using it, and then — he says this with a Cheshire cat grin — “I started saying it like I meant it!” (And the place goes crazy.) You’ve got to hand it to Trump: It’s not every presidential candidate who could come on as a fearless truth-teller, confess to a crowd that one of his central campaign tenets is something he doesn’t believe, and get embraced for being so forthright about his own lie.

‘The Swamp’ Review: An HBO Documentary About Three ‘Drain the Swamp!’ Republicans Who Can’t See Their Own Swamp

Reviewed online, Aug. 3, 2020. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 114 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films release of an Intellectual Property Corporation/Calliope Pictures production. Producers: Shiral Kozak, Fredrik Stanton, Matthew Whitworth, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme. Executive producers: Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman.
  • Crew: Directors, screenplay: Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme. Camera: Stefan Wiesen. Editor: Marc Vives. Music: Kyle Scott Wilson.
  • Cast: Matt Gaetz, Thomas Massie, Ken Buck, Lawrence Lessig, Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Jillian Lane Wyant, Luke Ball, Ritika Robertson, Christopher Jaarda, John Sarbanes, John Ferland, Katie Hill.
  • Music By: