Two years ago on Jan. 6, 2021, a group of right-wing pro-Trump rioters stormed the capitol building in Washington D.C., marking the violent culmination of a historic cultural and media frenzy around the polarizing 2020 election cycle. This event, and the frenzy leading up to it, are the subject of journalist and documentarian Andrew Callaghan’s new documentary on HBO, “This Place Rules,” which premiered Dec. 30, 2022. Though laudable, the filmmaking is surprisingly shallow, making “This Place Rules” an ultimately skippable watch.
The recent allegations of sexual coercion and assault against him further complicate any viewing experience — there’s little worth to be found here.
Callaghan, who built his career around man-on-the-street interviews (often of a comedic bent) attempts in his new film to get at the heart of American radicalism and political indoctrination: ultimately, his efforts are scattershot.
“This Place Rules” never quite lands on a tone and doesn’t find a thesis until nearly the end of the film. The title suggests a lacking irreverence and each act suggests conversations ultimately unspoken or otherwise abandoned. For better or worse, Callaghan captures a lot with very little depth, rather than focusing in on any one point. It’s not until Jan. 6 happens that he seems to realize what the film’s about. Much of the first three quarters is spent wondering when there will finally be a point.
This being said, there are some outstanding moments. Callaghan interviewing the QAnon family is heartbreaking and caring in a way that shows depth beyond the late night talk show style of “gotcha” political comedy. When he returns to them following Jan. 6, we see a family irrevocably broken by zealous belief, and though the questions are tough, there’s sympathy there which is a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, the rest of the documentary doesn’t hold with it.
Part of what works well in the documentary (pre-allegations) is Callaghan’s comic persona, a quiet everyman that both sides of the aisle can project themselves onto. He knows he can’t change anyone’s mind in an interview, so rather than scoring points, he carefully lets them fold in on themselves. It’s a technique that works well in interviews with such scorned figures as Alex Jones and Henry “Enrique” Tarrio.
This is all well and good, but ultimately, the film seems to think itself funnier than it is. There’s an aura of knowing smarm that it just can’t shake, only exacerbated by Callaghan’s self-righteous narration. By all accounts, the humor of the documentary should be a standout — after all, the film is produced by Tim Heidecker and Eric Waerheim — and at times it is, but often Callaghan and company’s attempts fall flat in the editing room.
Some moments, though, are really well-done and hilarious, even if concerning. However, these instances highlight the artificiality of the production, which steals an unnecessary amount of credibility from the documentary. In cutting together footage from interviews to highlight hypocrisy, we’re asked to trust that the subjects and their viewpoints are being honestly represented, but the manipulative editing elsewhere kills the trust we have. This trust is even further degraded following the allegations against Callaghan.
Ultimately, this documentary is only surface deep, and if you’ve stayed relatively well-informed in the past few years, there isn’t much new you’ll take from it. It could’ve been really great — or, at least, better — if it chose to focus on, say, political celebrities and their niche influence on culture at large. Instead, however, it takes a wide angle view of the election protests, and as a result, any “journalism” it accomplishes isn’t much more than pure summary. If you’re looking for a documentary to unwind with over the weekend, I’d look somewhere else —”This Place” stinks.
Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @spenserwillden
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