The new documentary Hating Breitbart is simultaneously euphoric and painful.
For the many fans of Andrew Breitbart who miss him terribly, director Andrew Marcus’s new film offers what we’ve craved since his sudden death March 1: another 85 minutes in his frenetic presence — the jolly laughter, the furious denunciations of corruption and collusion, the over-caffeinated top-speed-at-all-times energy that drove the man during his all-too-brief time in the spotlight.
Marcus started working on the film two years ago, with his subject’s full cooperation. And Breitbart got to see the rough cut before he died.
Undoubtedly, the most wonderful surprises of Hating Breitbart are the brief glimpses we get of the man behind the larger-than-life persona; these are most frequently offered by Breitbart’s father-in-law, Orson Bean. We learn that Breitbart’s embrace of conservatism started in part when he spotted, and mocked, a Rush Limbaugh book on Bean’s bookshelf. Bean urged him to read it, and Breitbart found himself surprised and fascinated by the conservative radio host’s arguments. Breitbart’s wife, Susie, makes one brief audio cameo by speakerphone, settling a disagreement between her father and her husband about why Breitbart fell out of a chair during one of their early meetings.
There was a flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all man behind the revelatory hidden-camera videos, the combative television appearances, the fiery speeches that established him as the clearest leader of the insurgent tea-party movement. The very best moments of Hating Breitbart show us that man — for instance, goofing around with friend and business partner Larry Solov about hair gel or their fantasy baseball team. At one point Breitbart goes into an excruciatingly funny and detailed lament about his body hair, which he finds expanding at an undesirable rate.
In the most entertainingly edited section, Breitbart’s memories of his Tulane college years are offered as a rapid-fire disjointed series of phrases — “comes out with a shotgun!” “That’s how I spent a night in jail” — enthusiastically shared with an incredulous friend, filmmaker Stephen Bannon.
But the structure of the film is a little odd. Breitbart’s life before the ACORN tapes is only briefly mentioned here and there; the story effectively begins in 2009 and is mostly about Breitbart’s greatest hits — the ACORN videos; his challenge to the Democratic congressmen who claimed they were heckled with racial slurs while walking past tea-party protesters on Capitol Hill; the controversy over Shirley Sherrod’s remarks at an NAACP dinner. Breitbart fearlessly confronting protesters who don’t really know what they’re protesting, the manic speeches, the detailed dissection of media narratives and motives — they’re all here, and enjoyable. But they’re also pretty familiar to Breitbart fans.
We get a clear sense of what drove him — an incredulous fury that the media’s narratives demonize middle America and celebrate a deeply corrupt Democratic party. However, that outrages many Americans. What set Andrew apart? What led him to do something about his fury? How did he develop such a sure sense of how the media work, how to break through the noise of the daily news cycle, how to keep coming back with one eye-popping story after another? Viewers are left knowing Breitbart was special, but with little sense of how he became the force he was.
Director Andrew Marcus told the Washington Examiner he made a conscious decision not to re-edit the film after Breitbart’s death, and that leaves an odd, jarring tone whenever one person or another speaks about him in the present tense — “He is a partisan journalist,” “He does an amazing job of stirring the pot,” and so on.
There is one particularly painful moment, when Breitbart is answering skeptical questioners in a restaurant in California and an audience member observes, “You seem to run on rage and righteous indignation. How’s your health?” After joking that his book (not yet published at that time) would be titled Righteous Indignation, Breitbart says, “I feel great!”
Perhaps most bewildering is the way the film handles one of Breitbart’s most triumphant moments.
Breitbart was the first to call attention to a revealing photograph sent out on Representative Anthony Weiner’s Twitter feed, and the first to argue that it revealed an inappropriate relationship between the congressman and online female admirers. Weiner vehemently denied Breitbart’s assertions and claimed his Twitter account had been hacked; he and more than a few allies, like CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, suggested that Breitbart was probably lying.
The controversy triggered days of questions about how and why someone would hijack Weiner’s account to send out those photos, and increasingly implausible comments from the congressman, including his famously telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he could not say whether or not the photo was of his own underwear-clad private parts.
A few days later Weiner called a press conference in a hotel in New York City to admit that, indeed, that was him in the photo, and he had engaged in sexual chat with young women on Twitter. But before Weiner arrived, Breitbart stepped up to the microphones and “hijacked” the press conference, denouncing Weiner for lying and the media for uncritically repeating his lies.
This footage appears only as the credits of Hating Breitbart start to roll. As the credits continue to roll, talking head after talking head — many on MSNBC, unsurprisingly — refer to the “so discredited” Breitbart.
None of this is to suggest that Breitbart fans won’t be glad this movie was made; they will. But we may feel that Breitbart’s death needed to be addressed by more than just the closing visual, “Andrew Breitbart 1969–2012.”
Periodically in Hating Breitbart, professionals in the news business discuss Breitbart’s influence on modern journalism, and during tea-party rallies, we repeatedly hear grassroots activists citing him as an inspiration. Perhaps the legacy of Andrew Breitbart is a sufficiently rich topic to warrant its own separate documentary, but it feels strange to see that topic largely left untouched by this one.
As the movie hits theaters, one of Breitbart’s protégés, James O’Keefe, has exposed a congressman’s son making suggestions for committing voter fraud; the exposé led to the son’s resignation as field director of the congressman’s reelection campaign. Breitbart was unique, but his methods are likely to live on for many years in our political life.
There’s one more wrinkle that would have made a natural topic for the film’s close and the discussion of Breitbart’s legacy: the future of the institutions he founded. The wacky-cat-pictures-and-political-journalism site BuzzFeed recently did a story on the state of Breitbart.com, and large swaths of that article read like a hit piece, with lots of unnamed sources carping about their bosses. It’s an unfortunate treatment of a legitimately fascinating story; the challenge before Solov, Bannon, Larry O’Connor, Dana Loesch, and the gang is a supremely difficult one. Their mission — maintaining and building an institution so closely associated with the popular personality of its founder — is difficult, probably the toughest of its sort since . . . well, perhaps since National Review needed to forge an identity without William F. Buckley Jr.
But perhaps it’s appropriate that Hating Breitbart ends too abruptly and leaves the viewer wanting more. That applies to the life of its subject, too.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.