By Heather Baysa
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Remember Condoleezza Rice?
Just over a year ago, she was the Secretary of State, as well as one of the most divisive figures in American political life. But after being washed out of Washington amid a Democratic tidal wave, she's all but vanished. Her boss, President George W. Bush, remains very much in the popular consciousness, due in part to late-night comedians who recognize him as better material out of office than Barack Obama is in it, and Vice President Dick Cheney continues to pop up regularly on news programs, his jaw grimly set, his eyes blazing with feverish indignation as he blasts the current administration for being soft on terrorism and pretty much everything else.
But Rice, who took a position at Stanford University, where she spent much of the '80s and '90s, has faded from the scene. If she's not yet ancient history, she certainly seems like a more remote part of the past than her actual time out of the limelight would justify.
All of which could have presented an opportunity to filmmaker Sebastian Doggart, the man behind the Rice documentary American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi, a chance to analyze an essentially contemporary subject from an unexpected distance. But, no. Although Doggart's piece initially affects a cool style that offers at least the illusion of detachment and objectivity, the film devolves into the sort of uni-dimensional agitprop incapable of either changing or opening minds.
The few moments of freshness to be found are frontloaded into the early segments. Sequences about Rice's childhood in Birmingham during the civil-rights era, her relationship with her father, a Presbyterian minister, and her devotion to music (dramatized by a combination of archival photos and Rice interview clips, plus comments from a gaggle of biographers) are generally free of scolding and censure.
Likewise, the portion of the film covering the period after her family's 1969 move to Denver prove modestly insightful. Rice's dispassionate decision to ditch her dreams of becoming a concert pianist after seeing a more skilled (and younger) performer at the Aspen Music Festival speaks volumes about her ambitiousness. So, too, do the comments of former Denver Bronco Rick Upchurch, who was both among the most feared punt returners in NFL history and the only man to propose to Rice and have her agree to marry him, albeit after weeks of musing. Upchurch's memories humanize Rice, at least until he recounts her decision to break off their engagement in order to accept a Washington internship. "She chose power over love," Upchurch says.
Equally strong are sequences focusing on the influence of Josef Korbel, a professor at the University of Denver who just happened to spawn another future secretary of state (his daughter, Madeleine Albright). They show Rice falling under the sway of an influential male figure — a pattern that would repeat itself again and again throughout her career, often in conjunction with ideological shifts that contradicted earlier views.
The Korbel material foreshadows American Faust's most intriguing and provocative questions: Instead of developing strongly held opinions, did Rice simply absorb the philosophy of her latest mentor? And if so, was she sincere about these beliefs from moment to moment, or did she cynically embrace them in a bid for advancement? Too bad this theme tends to be drowned out by Doggart's increasingly judgmental tone. For instance, Rice is repeatedly faulted for taking advantage of the opportunities afforded her in academia and politics as an African-American woman even as she refused to reach out to others in the same situation — like a veteran minority-woman professor whom she's portrayed as callously sacking while she was Stanford's provost.
Doggart's hands get even heavier as the chronology reaches the Bush era, during which his characterization of Rice becomes frustratingly inconsistent. At first, she's a canny manipulator who cleverly endears herself to Bush by teaching him all that foreign policy stuff he never gave a damn about before, then uses their friendship to protect herself against the ego-driven machinations of Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. After 9/11, though, she's suddenly transformed into a robotically obedient Bush acolyte, rejecting a more nuanced vision of the world in favor of his simplistic bring-it-on bravado.
So, were the horrors on which Doggart subsequently lingers — the torture, the extraordinary renditions, the naked pyramids at Abu Ghraib — Rice's ideas, or was she merely doing Bush's bidding with fearsome efficiency, either because she'd been hypnotized into thinking it was the right thing to do, or because she was drunk on authority, albeit in an outwardly prim and controlled way? It hardly seems to matter to Doggart, who underscores everything with grim, foreboding strings and uses flying-mallet techniques like juxtaposing a photo of Condi as a lovely schoolgirl with a demonic latter-day shot apparently taken just before she vomited pea soup and spun her head around 360 degrees.
American Faust strains to establish Rice as an undeniable villainess, but she's too slippery a subject. Despite Doggart's dogged efforts, she gets away from him, disappearing before our eyes.
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