Director: Penny Lane
4 (out of 5) Globes
You’re supposed to trust documentaries. It’s a genre we too often think of as mere journalism, reporting hard facts, crafting convincing arguments, alerting us to untold outrages of justice and other assorted miseries. Penny Lane’s “Nuts!” is a doc about a very important subject: humanity’s capacity to fall for bull artists. It touches on the distaste for anti-intellectualism and the undying love for “pulling one’s self up from the bootstrap” narratives, which exist to convince us we won’t die unsuccessful failures. None of this is addressed directly in the film, mind you. It never tells you what to think. In fact, it’s purposefully evasive, intentionally manipulative. But by doing so it’s one of the most inventive and devastating films of the year.
Knowing nothing about the film or its subject going in is the ideal way to experience it. But if you must know: It covers the life of one John R. Brinkley, a now fairly obscure but once powerful Depression-era doctor who wasn’t exactly a doctor. In fact, he was a quack. His claim to fame was the accidental discovery that injecting goat glands into people could cure impotence. It didn’t, really. It was effectively a placebo for the ween. But people couldn’t get enough of it, and Brinkley’s operations were such a success that he created an empire towering over Kansas, which included such off-brand diversions as a powerful radio company that helped make country music a national phenom.
Brinkley was, in short, a quack, a huckster and, eventually, a demagogue. His arch-nemeses were members of the professional medical community, most passionately Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association, who made it his mission to destroy all junk scientists, Brinkley most of all. But for the first hour and change (out of 78 minutes), Fishbein isn’t the hero; he’s the villain. The sly trick up Lane’s sleave is to make most of the film a hagiography, pretending Brinkley was a folk hero besieged upon by elitist monsters. Fishbein and cohorts are portrayed as Snidely Whiplashes, complete with ominous music. “Nuts!” keeps up this charade till the final act, at which point the rug is pulled out from under us and we see Brinkley for what he really was: both a monster and, in his way, tragic, worthy of a finale both poetic and loaded with meaning.
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One thing that helps preserve Lane’s illusion is this: Though there’s a surprising amount of archival footage and photos, the images tend to be animated, in the smudgy, coarse style of the era’s political comics. It helps paint the story as both larger-than-life and soothing, seducing us to lower our critical guard and maybe even buy into the story, despite all the red flags concerning the masses knowing more about good health than medical professionals. Even if you don’t wind up had — and it would be a shame to reduce “Nuts!” to a twist movie — you can still get much out of what it says about America’s seemingly permanent love for frauds, especially those able to deflect criticism by painting themselves as victims of elites, all the while baldly ripping off and lying to their supporters. Too bad there’s no one like that stomping about the country right now.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge