Greetings again from the darkness. Quick! Name the Sheriff in your County. It’s highly unlikely that you can (unless you also serve in Law Enforcement). In fact, you probably can’t name any real Sheriff currently in office – that eliminates Wyatt Earp and Mayberry’s Andy Taylor. If you can name one, it’s likely to be Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona. This guy gets as much publicity as a Kardashian, and director Randy Murray spent 8 years following and researching Joe’s antics, record and policies.
The first third of the movie solidifies the case of Arpaio as the “PT Barnum of Sheriffs”. Thanks to his longtime Media Relations Director, Lisa Allen, Sheriff Joe has become the go-to guy for local, and sometimes national news outlets. We see a never-ending stream of stunts that keep Joe’s face on the tube, his voice on the radio, and his words in print. You may remember the “Walk-a-Con” where he escorted 2500 convicts to the new prison. What made this fodder for cameras? How about the pink underwear each of the convicts was wearing for the trek! Joe is also known for his “Tent City” of convicts … a cost-saving measure. You might also have seen Joe on shows such as “20/20” or “60 Minutes” as he explained his crusade against illegal immigrants (he was actively enforcing the Arizona state law).
Those interviewed include politicians, journalists, and state employees, Ted Nugent, Steven Segal, Hugh Downs, Larry King and Noam Chomsky. Descriptions of Joe include: flamboyant, tough, media hound, shoot-from-the-lip guy, and bully. It may come as a surprise that he has won 6 elections (the first in 1992), so clearly there are voters who agree with his “prison should be punishment” policy, and are able to overlook the many issues brought up in the final 2/3 of the film.
A change in tone occurs in the movie as we start to look behind the façade of this media hound. A “culture of cruelty” and corruption has led to 150 deaths and $25 million in settlements since he took office. There were an unfathomable 400 sex crime cases apparently swept under the rug to avoid costly investigations. The history of brutality in the ranks, some of it caught on video, is easily tied back to Joe’s attitude. His ability to balance his roles as Law Enforcement officer, master Politician, and media hound was exposed by his latest opponent, Democrat Paul Penzone … but one last publicity stunt allowed Joe to raise a record $8 million in campaign funds.
Director Murray does a terrific job of starting us off with what appears to be just a colorful character, and then leading us down a much darker path of the reality behind the distractions. We see Sheriff Joe criticized for using unreasonable force, ruling through a climate of fear, and abusing the power of his position. Watching how Sheriff Joe responds to this criticism is truly a fascinating psychological character study, and it acts as a reminder of how his addiction to the media is simply a means to an end … the way to maintain his reign and fame.