Following Andrew

by Andrew Leigh
A new film shows the controversies, victories, and appeal of a culture warrior.

I first met Andrew Breitbart in 2004, and he was the room’s center of attention. Well, it wasn’t a room; it was the lobby of a movie theater in West Hollywood. He was surrounded by a group of people who were hanging on his words and laughing at his stories (Breitbart knew how to tell a story).

Inside the theater auditorium, the conservative-themed Liberty Film Festival was underway. But the real action was in the lobby, where Breitbart held court.

I didn’t know who he was then. It was whispered that he worked for Matt Drudge, the fedora’ed one of Drudge Report infamy. But it was the force of Breitbart’s unconventional charisma and his restless intelligence that drew people to him anytime they spotted his trademark thatch of prematurely graying hair nearby. He was never dull.

Breitbart knew that pop culture was the real battleground of our age. One of his favorite lines was “Culture is upstream from politics.” That’s why he made a point of speaking at that film festival in 2004. And that’s why the first blog he created was called Big Hollywood.

So it is fitting, and fortunate for us, that Breitbart granted a documentary crew near-full access to his hectic life for the two years preceding his untimely passing. The result is Hating Breitbart, which is now available on DVD and video on demand. (The title is misleading, as the movie is far more hagiography than hit job.)

The crew seems to have followed Breitbart everywhere: to tea-party rallies, inside media interviews, through dense convention crowds, in the car, into hotel rooms, even standing watch as he ironed his pants and brushed his teeth. But we don’t mind, because the movie delivers generous doses of Breitbart’s offbeat charm, and for that alone we ought to be grateful to director Andrew Marcus and producers Maura Flynn and Evan Coyne Maloney. (The latter two, incidentally, were also present at that 2004 film festival, each with a movie screening there.)

The filmmakers opted for more of a highlights-reel approach than a traditional story structure. The primary focus is on three controversial episodes in Breitbart’s career:  the ACORN videos, his defense of the Tea Party from charges of racism, and the Shirley Sherrod donnybrook. The movie does a fairly effective job of pleading Breitbart’s case in each of these controversies, but perhaps it could have spent a little less time on score settling and a little more on Breitbart’s life.

One can never get enough of Breitbart, so the film’s best moments, naturally, occur when he is front and center, interacting with his colleagues and fans. Breitbart was famous among his friends for his willingness to talk to anybody, anytime. He could be out at a restaurant with a group of distinguished pundits and spend half the night discussing ’80s music (one of his passions) with a busboy. A glimpse of this comes through in the film, as he stops and chats with giddy fans in various crowds.

One cleverly edited, impressionistic sequence has Breitbart outside his old college fraternity in New Orleans, relating a marathon tale about his partying exploits to Stephen K. Bannon, a filmmaker and executive chairman of Breitbart News. Since showing us the entire story would probably take up more than the movie’s run time, the filmmakers tease us with a series of brief tidbits, cutting out the most salacious details (such as a burlesque queen doing a fan dance). It economically conveys Breitbart’s offbeat sense of humor. As he liked to put it, “I only have two modes: jocularity and righteous indignation.”

The film captures some of Breitbart’s contentious encounters with the media, such as an interview by Terry Moran of ABC News, who tries to get Breitbart to call congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis a liar for accusing tea-party activists of using the “n” word. Breitbart is clearly onto Moran’s game, and the verbal dance between them is fascinating. As a former liberal raised on the entertainment-industry-saturated west side of Los Angeles, Breitbart was hardly a typical conservative, and mainstream-media figures who wouldn’t give your average right-winger the time of day were simultaneously drawn by his kinetic personality and repulsed by his politics.

This was a key source of Breitbart’s power — he knew the media elite so well, he could anticipate their every move. Breitbart’s handling of the ACORN videos, which he gleefully describes in the movie, is a master class in media manipulation. He terrified the Left because he was a new style of conservative — unpredictable, media-savvy, and with an edginess they had rarely witnessed in a right-winger, sort of a cross between Ben Bradlee and Andy Kaufman.

Liberals believe they have a monopoly on hipness, which is the best (perhaps the only) thing they have going for them. As Breitbart’s gonzo appeal threatened to yank the highly coveted “cool” label away from them, the Left did everything they could to tear him down. The movie shows “journalists” following Breitbart down hallways and angrily accusing him of being a drug addict or gay or both. What they couldn’t understand is that Breitbart didn’t care; he laughed it all off, or better yet, wore their hate as a badge of honor.

They assumed that these associations would undermine Breitbart’s appeal with the conservative grassroots. But as his actor father-in-law, Orson Bean (himself a liberal-turned-conservative), points out in the movie, it didn’t work. Bean’s wife told him that the little old blue-haired ladies in her Bible-study class just adored Breitbart.

The ’60s Baby Boomer generation and their dutiful protégés like to think they are still the counterculture rebels. But Breitbart’s career pierced that fragile illusion, exposing them as the cranky old establishment yelling at the new media to get off their lawns.

You’d expect the movie to end with what is perhaps Breitbart’s greatest triumph, the Weiner sexting scandal, which brought him sweet vindication after the opprobrium he weathered regarding l’affaire Sherrod. Unfortunately, the movie simply runs news clips from Wienergate alongside the closing credits, treating it as a dénouement rather than a third act. Perhaps someone else will make a documentary about that subject. A release date a few weeks before the next New York mayoral election could be excellent timing. Breitbart would have appreciated that.

— Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter and a co-founder of Taliesin Nexus, a Los Angeles-based educational nonprofit that trains and supports conservative and libertarian filmmakers.