Documentaries, by definition, fly or fall based on their subject matter. So when one turns up with some seriously meaty material – as The Family has – the temptation is to judge it mainly on that, rather than how it presents it.
And the temptation’s more prominent with The Family than in most cases, because it focuses on an organisation which is simultaneously not widely known, and powerful on an international level. It’d seem like the wackier kind of conspiracy theory if it wasn’t all well-documented – these guys really do hide in plain sight, and embrace that quality as an obvious strength.
The Family (one of various names they’re filed under) are, when it comes down to it, a Christian lobbying group, but not the sort that image might immediately conjure. They’re not insular backwoods types, or sleazy strip-mall televangelists, or even liberal reformers – nor, more curiously, are they aligned with any specific denomination of the Christian faith. Their actual ideology appears to be a thin veneer of Jesus laid over concerted efforts to become an effective political machine, efforts which have worked alarmingly well.
The secrecy is a wise decision, given that they’re fairly open about borrowing techniques from such savoury groups as the Mafia and the Nazis. It’s not the organised murder, at least not that we know of, rather it’s the group dynamics and unspoken loyalty. At times it’s reminiscent of William L. Riordon’s ‘Plunkitt of Tammany Hall’, that classic defence of mutual back-scratching in politics. ‘Jesus’, here, seems to be a bearded embodiment of advancing American-style capitalism, and of the guys at the top getting theirs.
Where the Family splits with their Axis forebears is that it’s a distinctly non-centralised organisation. Indeed, setting up independent branches all over the world, all working along the same rough guidelines, is far more similar to another subset of religious groups: the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, al-Qaeda and ISIS are crumbling rump outfits more concerned with their own rivalry than with destroying the decadent West, whereas the Family are entrenched in the corridors of power in Washington. They, clearly, take the prize here.
Yet despite this obviously intriguing subject matter, there’s a certain amount of lede-burying. For instance, the knee-jerk homophobia of hardline Christian groups has always been one of their most contemptible qualities. ‘Horsemen of the apocalypse’ Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens spent much time criticising this, and with good reason: it’s an obvious soft underbelly which is easy to attack. The Family are quite happy to stir up this kind of hate in places like Africa and Eastern Europe, where mob justice is often the order of the day – yet the documentary doesn’t even mention this until the second-to-last episode.
What takes precedence, over vigilante murder in the developing world, is an episode which rather splashily boasts of its coverage of the Family’s sex scandals. Much of the episode revolves around this mysterious house in Washington DC that keeps its curtains firmly closed. What could be going on in there? In the light of the recent history of the Catholic church, and the revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s shadowy network of Washington contacts, the viewer is primed for an expose of the most horrific of crimes.
Instead it’s the thin gruel of Family-connected politicians having affairs and the organisation stage-managing their awkward public confessions. Certainly these aren’t not good situations, and definitely not particularly Christian, but it’s by no means uniquely evil. Rather, it’s the kind of low-grade drama you’ll run into with any sufficiently large organisation, simply by dint of humans being imperfect beings (and this, too, is something the Family knows and exploits).
It’s perhaps cynical to think the makers knew most viewers would be expecting some really horrible colour stuff, but there’s a tendency throughout for the documentary to assume we know more than they’re letting on. In the first five minutes of the first episode, it’s already zooming in on figures in the background of archive photographs, ominous music groaning in the background, before they’re established any of the major players or even what kind of organisation this is. Throughout, there’s also the seemingly obligatory scare shots of Donald Trump, whose actual links to the Family – and they bear close examination – aren’t explored until the final episode.
This could make sense if you took the view that they’re steadily building it up, to the really bad stuff. However, having established from the off that the Family’s been in deep with every President since Eisenhower – which of course they had to make clear, since it’s the smoking gun of the Family’s importance and influence – this seems like inexplicable coyness. Especially when some of the earlier material doesn’t even come off too badly.
When it comes down to it, some of the demonstrations of the Family’s sheer soft power seems more like it’s promoting them. Despite the polarisation of Western politics, they’ve got Republicans and Democrats arm in arm singing kumbayah? It was them, as an avowedly Christian organisation, who managed to bring Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat round the negotiating table back in the ‘70s? Well, hell, respect to the craft. I’d like to see anyone who isn’t part of a terrifying Freemason-style secret society do that.
(Ha ha ha! That’s a joke. The Freemasons haven’t been particularly secret for twenty years now.)
Similarly, there’s a lot of material on their relationship with post-Soviet Russia and its four-term President, James Bond villain Vladimir Putin – but compared with lurid descriptions of Soviet boot-boys kicking in people’s doors looking for contraband Bibles, it’d be a tall order not to have the Family come off as the lesser of two evils. Yes, they were right alongside the oligarchs in carving up Russia’s infrastructure for personal gain, but that was going to happen with or without them. Again, this paints them as dirty, but far from uniquely so.
Come the final episode, once you have the whole picture, it’s a distinctly unprepossessing one. But the way it’s been presented seems distinctly uneven, and what’s worse, most of the real dirt isn’t your flashier stuff. The separation of church and state is an important principle, but it’s not exactly sexy. To point to the Family’s underwhelming sex scandals again, if the makers had anything juicier they’d have used it.
Overall, you end up unable to dismiss the possibility the Family may have had a hand in creating the documentary: stepping out of the shadows for once just to puff themselves up, and state, loudly and explicitly, that they’re not going anywhere.
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A slightly muddled presentation of a serious, worrying topic – like a children’s cartoon about climate change. The really scary part is that this documentary seems to be all the mainstream attention they’re getting.
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