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Vice’s Latest Documentary Takes Journey to Strange Land: Washington, D.C.

Variety logo Variety 12/7/2016 Brian Steinberg
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Aficionados of Vice often thrill to the millennial-skewing media outlet’s reporting from exotic, unfamiliar locales. In one instance, Vice might put a reader or viewer smack dab in a war-torn battlefield. In another, it could take someone to a rat-infested temple in the small town of Deshoke in India.

On Friday, Vice will help its followers journey to another bizarre domain: the nation’s capital.

The company’s founder, Shane Smith, will take viewers on a tour through eight years of heartbreaking government dysfunction with the latest episode of Vice’s HBO documentary series, “Vice Special Report: A House Divided.” In the nearly 75-minute broadcast set for HBO at 10 p.m. on December 9, viewers will see Smith, clad in suit and tie, trek from the Oval Office at the White House to a tony Republican social club in search of the exact causes of the deep schisms widening across the country. What’s unique about the program is its desire to explain and probe rather than burnish the shouting and hysteria that have become de rigueur across the cable-news landscape.

“This election was very interesting to our demo, and to our audience, but they are sort of disappointed with the mainstream take on it,” noted Smith in an interview. “We wanted to get a little deeper into why this is happening, into what are the roots of these reactions. I think that is sort of signature Vice.” He was initially worried the documentary would be “too policy-wonky,” but realized that his viewers “are very interested in this sort of topic, and not just to have sound bites. They want a history of how we got to where we are.”

The documentary took eight months to put together, Smith said, and the reasons for the weeks of work are evident. Smith interviews President Barack Obama; former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner; former U.S. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor; and Republican pollster Frank Luntz, among others. A previous Vice documentary on prison reform, which followed President Obama on a visit to Oklahoma federal prison, had made an impact on both Republican and Democratic sources, Smith said. Boehner and Cantor, he suggested, wanted to get their stories out after leaving Congress in the wake of the rise of the Tea Party. “Everyone had a lot to say, and wanted to say it,” he noted.

The trip is in many ways a harrowing one. Viewers see Republicans feel rejected by President Obama as he sets about enlisting support for his Affordable Care Act. He would eventually pass it without Republican assistance (writing for Poynter.org, James Warren noted Wednesday that the documentary may give too much credence to Republican complaints: “The Republican leaders’ grousing about being victimized by Obama partisanship is very much a crock”). Yet viewers will see as the documentary unfolds how Republicans’ refusal to work with the White House leads to a gridlocked Congress, and the rise of a new conservative wing of legislators sent to Washington by frustrated voters. By the time the President’s second term is near its end, the documentary notes, neither side is getting much done.

The effort also provides some insight into how the political climate fueled the news media’s intense interest in disagreement and conflagration over solution and diagnosis.  In one scene, Luntz tells how he set up a strategy for Republican to fight the President and rues what it has done to the nation, telling Smith that “we killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”

“This was bad, and now he’s set this precedent and the media has glommed on that,” said Smith.”If you go and scream bloody murder, then it’s just more entertaining than plain, logical, centrist, functional politics, and so this crazy cycle has started, and who knows where it’s gojng to end?”

Some of Smith’s interview with Boehner turned up earlier on Vice’s daily news show on HBO,  “Vice News Tonight,” and Smith suggests the company’s weekly documentaries and the nightly news shows are likely to continue sharing some content. “One of the reasons that we did the daily is because it feeds into the weekly,” he explained. Reporters who might cover the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s recent protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline can file breaking-news reports for “Vice News Tonight,” he said, while continuing to gather string for a deeper look at the conflict.

Vice’s new documentary is not likely to comfort viewers. Smith said the program suggests President-elect Donald Trump is likely to face many of his predecessor’s challenges. He will have the support of the House and the Senate at the start of his administration, but if the American people aren’t pleased, Congress could become a tough opponent and gridlock could set in anew. “It’s a cautionary tale,” Smith noted.

And not just for Donald Trump. In one of the documentary’s last scenes, President Obama openly worries that a frustrated nation may push to make changes to some of America’s bedrock institutions and laws  – and wonders where that might lead. “There could be a movement for systemic change, and that’s a problem, because when a revolution happens, you don’t know where it’s going to end up,” said Smith. One of the lessons of the program is “let’s not get so frustrated with our democracy that we blow it up, because we never know where that is going to lead. This is a guy who has seen a lot of shit in the last eight years, and if that’s his biggest worry, then that should be our biggest worry,” said Smith.

The film’s last shot shows Washington D.C. by night. As the piece ends, viewers may agree that the city looks as unfamiliar to them as many of the other places Vice visits on a routine basis,

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