The age of entertainment-driven politics in which an actor or a reality-TV show host can be president had its origins with a popular newspaper columnist in the 1930s. Such is the premise of Ben Loeterman’s PBS “American Masters” documentary, “Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip.” He makes a strong argument, showing the foreboding similarities between Winchell’s success and our current politics.
With his snark, shade, scoops, and smears, Winchell today would find himself right at home on the Internet, but he did well enough with the media available at the time: the combined audience from his syndicated newspaper column, his radio show, and later his TV program came to 50 million.
His specialty was tattling on the rich and famous, who were terrified of him. His audience was the common people, “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea” as he referred to them. His style was barbed and slick, relying on innuendo to avoid lawsuits, and peppered with “slanguage” — words and phrases he coined or lifted and some of which like “blessed event” and “G-man,” have endured and others like “infanticipate,” “trouser crease eraser,” and “scallions” should have.
Despite this success, Winchell wanted to be taken seriously as a news reporter and political player. He was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt, gained access to him, and promoted the New Deal and Roosevelt’s other policies. A proud Jew, he denounced the Nazis as early as 1933, calling them “swastinkers,” and urged the United States to enter the war in Europe. He was also a supporter of racial justice.
But when Roosevelt died, so did a piece of Winchell. Scrambling for another powerful political contact, he made an ideological U-turn and supported Joseph McCarthy during his Communist witch hunt. When McCarthy and his red-baiting campaign crashed, Winchell tried his luck at the new medium of TV, but his show was a dud and his slide into obscurity began.
Conventional but polished, Loeterman’s mix of archival material and interviews is sparked by Stanley Tucci as the voice of Winchell spouting his greatest hits with snideness and savoir-faire.
“Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip” can be seen on pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app.
In the desert
In advance of streaming Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, “City Hall,” starting Nov. 6, the Coolidge Corner Theatre has begun a series called Wednesdays with Wiseman. It pairs one of the director’s documentaries with a discussion between Wiseman and a distinguished guest. The next installment features the rarely screened “Sinai Field Mission” (1978). Wiseman’s interlocutor will be another Cambridge documentary luminary, Errol Morris.
The mission of the film’s title was established in 1976 by the United States to monitor the activities of the Egyptian and Israeli military during their disengagement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That was the theory, but in practice — as Wiseman shows with wry, fly-on-the wall acuity — the staff endures frustration, isolation, tedium, and bureaucratic absurdities in fulfilling with dedication a sometimes amorphous task. The opening scene, of one of them driving an SUV through the desert, passing the charred wrecks of military vehicles and an occasional camel, and stopping to dig a hole in the sand to conceal a sensor, embodies the Sisyphean nature of the assignment.
“Sinai Field Mission” opens Oct. 28 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.
Far from finished
After several millennia of men being in charge, the results have been catastrophic. Time for women to take over, and that’s exactly what they’re doing in Sara Wolitzky’s “Not Done: Women Remaking America.” A dynamic chronicle of the reenergizing of feminist activism over the last five years, the film shows how Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, gay and transgender causes, environmentalists, and anti-gun violence groups such as March for Our Lives have coalesced to form an intersectional powerhouse.
After the crushing defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the movement rebounded with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. An estimated 1.2 million marched in Washington alone and around 5 million nationwide, making it the largest single-day protest in US history.
Another setback occurred when Brett Kavanaugh was approved by the Senate as a Supreme Court justice, but that was followed by a wave of women voted into public office during the 2018 election. Yet as the chaotic events of 2020 indicate, the challenges now are greater than ever, and much work lies ahead.
Wolitzky presents lively interviews with celebrity advocates such as Natalie Portman, America Ferrera, and Shonda Rhimes and activists including Tarana Burke, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patrisse Cullors. “I have never seen so much activism in my life,” says Gloria Steinem, who’s been active since the 1960s. Commenting on the youth of those now involved in the movement she adds, “I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born.”
“Not Done: Women Remaking America” premieres Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. on PBS.
Walk the walk
A New Yorker magazine feature described the subject of Julie Sokolow’s “Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story” as reminiscent of the late comic and performance artist Andy Kaufman. But Baumer, a poet, YouTube diarist, and environmentalist, also shares some of the free-spirited naivete of a Pee-wee Herman or even Timothy Treadwell, the tragic subject of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (2005).
Overwhelmed by the pending doom of climate change and feeling powerless to do anything about it, Baumer decided in 2016 to walk barefoot from his home in Providence across America, adding daily online diary entries about his progress. Sokolow draws on many of these postings, and they range from goofily joyous (he’s the kind of guy who talks to cows, and the cows love him for it) to near despondent. There are many shots of him grinning as he holds up his battered feet for a close-up and of motorists stopping to offer him a ride or a pair of shoes.
Halted by harsh winter conditions, he restarted his trek in Florida. That’s where he was struck and killed by a car on Jan. 20, 2017, the same day Donald Trump was sworn in as president. He was 33.
“Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story” is available on VOD and digital platforms, including iTunes, Apple TV+, and Amazon Prime, beginning Oct. 27.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.