SIFF Film Review – Town Hall
For Katy Abram, it all started at town hall. In 2009, she passionately railed at then Pennsylvania state senator Arlen Specter about how this country was slipping into socialism. “I don’t want this country turning into Russia,” she said. The once quiet stay-at-home mother was deeply upset by the universal health care debate and told Specter that he and his liberal colleagues had “awakened a sleeping giant.” Boy, did they. She became a media sensation and appeared on Fox News, CNN, and other news shows to speak about her fears and concerns for the nation. John Stahl, another Pennsylvania Tea Partier, used to have a booming business in Berks County, but says the government made it hard for successful businesses to thrive and so he had to close shop. Throughout the documentary, Stahl continues to speak in vague generalities about this government menace. This is their story, Abram’s and Stahl’s. Town Hall is an unbiased, observant documentary that follows these two Tea Party members as they prepare for the 2012 election.
In 2010, the Tea Party was a burgeoning movement of American voters who sought to elect conservatives, restore the country to the basics of the Constitution, minimize government, reduce taxes, reduce spending, and, seemingly most important: remove Obama from office. As the film starts, we watch Abram and Stahl campaign in their respective counties. Stahl jokes at one point that his division of the Pennsylvania Tea Party is the least redneck of them all. The more the camera focuses on him, the less sure I was of his declaration.
Stahl harbors an overwhelming distrust for all Hispanic immigrants. He immediately assumes they’re in the country illegally. At one point, he drives through a depressed part of his town and tells us that when he was a child, the neighborhood had been for the upper class. The houses had been neatly maintained, the yards kept, the stores brightly lit and open. Then the Mexicans moved in, he says. Illegals. He points at the boarded up stores, and the disheveled houses, and the overgrown lawns, and the porches littered with frayed couches and junk, and says Mexicans don’t know how to take care of things. He disregards the fact that these conditions are those of the destitute and depressed and are not particular to any race or nationality. He is also blind to the irony of his own situation. His dying mother’s medical bills are becoming too much, so he allows her to become a Medicare patient, a ward of the state. Near the end, he even attempts to take her to the Philippines, where one can buy a live-in nurse for a minimal fee.
Katy Abram is a little more thoughtful in her approach. She used to be an ambivalent liberal before she married her conservative husband. She now passionately fights to restore this country to what she feels are the ideals of the founding fathers. During her time campaigning, Katy attends an Occupy gathering to understand the viewpoints of the other side. When she returns home, her husband says, “I’m glad they didn’t realize you were Tea Party or they would have hurt you.” She rebuts with, “No, no, no. They’re good people. They want the same things that we do. They’re just misguided.” And so her approach is more humanistic. Even though, depending on your viewpoint, you may feel she is the misguided one, all she really wants to do is make this nation better for future generations, and I have to admire the goal, and her determination.
What Town Hall succeeds in is painting these Tea Party members as human. It is easy to forget in the very heated media debates that these people have lives outside campaigning. They have been brought to this boiling point due to a collapsing economy and a broken government. Katy Abram and her family used to sell homes like hotcakes, but the housing development they’ve been working on most recently is littered with empty and unfinished houses. John Stahl is saddled with debt and a dying mother and finds it increasingly hard to make ends meet. These are people coming to the end of their rope and lashing out. They feel their country, once a land of plenty, is falling to the dogs, and they aim to fix it. Whatever side of the political spectrum you land on, their conviction and perseverance are commendable.
Final Grade: A