Taken at face value, Political Animals isn’t the landmark documentary its subject matter suggests; the film’s narrative is told mostly via archive footage and talking heads, which is far from revolutionary in the documentary genre. But to complain about director Jonah Markowitz’ approach to telling the story would be missing the point. This is truly inspirational filmmaking, all but provoking the audience to jump on to their feet and cheer as we see progressive moments in the LGBT civil rights movement play out right in front of our eyes. Political Animals feels like an important historical document in the making- an important lesson on the progress the LGBT community has made in the last twenty years, and a stark reminder of the progress still needing to be made.
The film documents the story of four legislators who all played monumental roles in drafting LGBT rights laws that paved the way for the Supreme Court’s passing of marriage equality in 2015. Sheila Kuehl is the main focus of the documentary; the first openly gay person to be elected to the California legislature in 1994, she managed to capture the public imagination by introducing a bill that would finally name prejudice against sexual orientation to the list of discriminatory practices in schools.
The first half of the film is largely devoted to this landmark hearing, which has largely been forgotten in the pantheon of significant equal rights amendments over the past two decades. Structured exactly like a political thriller, it manages to take a real life event where we already know the outcome and makes it feel nail bitingly tense. When the bill eventually passes, you will have to forcibly stop yourself from bolting out of your seat and giving a standing ovation to the lawmakers.
However, Political Animals also works as an oddball comedy. The homophobic views of many Republican legislators are so divorced from reality, and argued in such a confused manner, that I couldn’t help but laugh at their attempts to block equal rights. Even towards the end of the film, when there is more broad support for gay rights amendments, the hearings still remain on the surreal end of the spectrum- I still can’t fully fathom why a plush doll of Tinky Winky for the Teletubbies was used as a visual accompaniment to an impassioned argument.
As well as being an essential watch for all LGBT people, the film is also one of the most essential feminist films in recent memory. After all, this is fundamentally a story about how equal rights gains were largely due to the dedicated, passionate work put in by four women who pulled out all of the stops to make sure the law would change for the better. It is genuinely inspirational filmmaking; closing with the now famous footage of President Obama announcing the Supreme Court’s decision, it will take a heart of stone not to weep tears of joy at the progress made, all thanks to a team of dedicated women.
Political Animals may be unadventurous from a filmmaking standpoint, but on an emotional level it hits hard. This is important, essential viewing- and as positive as the outcomes here are, it is still a vital reminder of the important LGBT rights issues that need to be addressed in the regressive Trump era. This film is needed now more than ever.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Afterword Pictures And Idiot Savant Pictures