By Akash Shetye, contributing writer
If you’re a filmgoer who leans left politically, Jen Senko’s “The Brainwashing of My Dad” is your worst nightmare. The documentary, which uses Senko’s father’s turn to conservatism as a starting point to examine how right wing news organizations manipulate viewers into believing pernicious ideas, largely feeds into the worst stereotypes that liberals are often associated with. It’s a tedious and petty work, offering little insight into politics, while serving up an ugly view of humanity.
The little insight “Brainwashing” contains comes in its historical contextualization of the right wing media. Seeking to examine just how her dad-a former Kennedy Democrat-turned into a nasty, sexist, and racist conservative, Senko explores old documents, articles, and interviews. Through her research, she reveals that, unlike what the traditional conservative narrative would have you believe, the right wing media didn’t rise organically and spontaneously as a response to liberal bias in the news, but was the product of careful planning by elites who wanted to exploit the fears of average, white Americans to push the country to the right.
Senko’s historical revelations are chilling, but rather than use this history to examine the lies or misrepresentations that conservative media has promoted since the late 60’s, she mostly glosses over them. Instead, she focuses her attention on the tools that conservative media uses to lure viewers into believing faulty ideas. As a result, the film ends up being a strange, dull, and inconsequential work, one that devotes more time to lampooning FOX News for its sleazy rhetorical strategies than for its promotion of the Iraq War. By emphasizing conservative bias more than conservative fraud or misrepresentation, then, Senko grills conservative media on its pettier crimes, while letting it off the hook on bigger ones.
If she takes it easy on conservative media, though, Senko criticizes conservatives harshly. Her film is filled with interview subjects who complain about, mock, and express fear over their right-wing parents, who are filled with rage and hate. Leading these subjects is Senko, whose voiceover constantly expresses disappointment at her dad’s fall from grace. While intended as a humane look at how the right wing media can wreak havoc on tight-knit families, this treatment of elderly conservatives comes off as dehumanizing. This dehumanization comes out in Senko’s direction, in how she chooses to conduct interviews with the liberal kids of conservatives instead of the conservatives themselves or in how she frames her dad off-center and in confused close-ups until he switches back to being a liberal, thus causing Senko to frame him dead-center and in shots that are cleanly edited to give a sense of space. Ultimately, such callous treatment of older conservatives is just unbearable to watch, as it reinforces the worst stereotype about liberals: that they’d put their political ideology over their own family.
In the disastrous election cycle that we’re having, a documentary that ties conservative media’s rise to our tragic situation and terrible policies would be welcome. Sadly, Jen Senko’s The “Brainwashing of My Dad” is not that documentary; instead, it is a film that ignores right-wing media’s worst tendencies for its most harmless ones, while reserving most of its scorn for people who fall prey to manipulation far beyond their control. In other words, the documentary is perfect for cable news channels.