Documentary Review: ‘American Gadfly’

Greetings again from the darkness. Since I was unsure of the definition of “gadfly”, I was equally unsure of what I was getting into when I agreed to review the first feature-length documentary from Skye Wallin. It turns out, Wallin anticipated that particular uncertainty and kindly provided the definition in the opening for the film. A gadfly is one who provokes or annoys in regards to certain topics, and in this case those topics are political and societal in nature. The titular gadfly is not one person, but rather a few unusual collaborators: a group of smart and idealistic teenagers and an 89 year old former Senator.

Our ‘old-timer’ is Mike Gravel, who served as US Senator for Alaska from 1969 through 1981. He’s probably best remembered for reading the Pentagon Papers into the official record in 1971. The Pentagon Papers were the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominated film THE POST (2017), but here they serve as background on Mr. Gravel, a lifelong fighter for ideals (think first edition Bernie Sanders). He ran a campaign for President in 2008, but had since lived a quiet life until contacted by a group of teenagers looking to raise awareness for the shared causes they believed in: anti-war, anti-corruption, etc.

The Gen Z activists convinced Gravel to run for President (the 2020 election) on a platform that mirrored his long-standing beliefs. Once Whitney, Gravel’s initially dubious wife, was on board, things clicked into overdrive. The smallest bit with the most impact was Gravel turning his Twitter account over to the youngsters. Make no mistake, this was a social media campaign fueled by the passion of a group of teenagers hoping to drive change. Mr. Gravel clearly admired (and shared) their passion, though he was not able to physically engage like he had early in his career.

Obviously these youngsters had no experience running a campaign, but their instincts were sharp as they drew in thousands of followers who shared their vision. Their goal of gaining an invitation for Gravel to one of the televised debates was both impressive and disappointing. A painful lesson about rules and a structured system led to a learning experience, rather than a successful mission.

Along the way, the group crossed paths with the likes of Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, and yes, even Bernie Sanders … each candidate expressing their admiration for the group’s work, and some even offering valuable assistance. Throughout history, the passion of youth has generated waves of change. The impacts aren’t always immediately noticeable, but the desire for a better world should drive us all, regardless of age or political affiliation. Skye Wallin’s entertaining and informative film reminds us of this.

*Note: Mike Gravel passed away in June 2021.

VOD on January 4, 2022.

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