Our film adaptation of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” raises eyebrows with some fans of the book, because it does not set out to explain the whole argument Frank makes about why social conservatives overwhelmingly vote Republican (even last fall, in the face of economic disaster.)
Movies are different than books by nature, Tom Frank himself has weighed in on this for us, and here’s a reviewer from Tulsa who really gets it, Joe O’Shanksy. He’s worth quoting at length:
There are no Michael Moore-esque editing tricks, or sensationalist posturing that hammer comedic ironies into the head of the viewer. It’s meandering meditation paints a confident directorial line to connect the disparate concerns conservative Kansans (and conservatives in general) have, and uses it’s palette to give the (in all likelihood liberal) audience a non-judgmental window into the mindset of people who repeatedly vote against their own best economic interests in the hope that those politicians will do something to stem the tide of social liberalism.
While a liberal audience may scoff at the even handedness the film seeks to afford people who are, to one degree or another, divorced from the reality of the situation (shrinking populations, economic disparity, or believing the Earth is 6,000 years old), the film itself doesn’t ridicule any of them, or play them for laughs.
It does, however, contrast the assertions of Frank’s book on their individual plights, and if you are of Frank’s frame of mind, then the answer to his question is quite obvious: Politicians who exploit people’s conservative and religious beliefs to get their vote use their elected position to cater to the interests of business which, more often then not, run in direct opposition to the interests of the voters.
But that’s why you should go see the film. I don’t want to filter these people through my own political lens; and it’s hard to resist the temptation. In a pre-movie Q&A, director Joe Winston noted that the film was greeted as warmly among conservative audiences as liberal ones. That’s because it plays it straight in order to attempt to create an honest dialogue.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? is interesting, compelling, quite funny (due to a real character named M.T. Liggett who had me laughing more in his short screen time then I laughed at the entirety of Couples Retreat), and stays true to the ideas behind Frank’s own questions about the historical conundrum he seems to suffer from as a lefty who calls Kansas his birthplace.
Why did a state that practically gave birth to liberal populism so radically shift to the Right? I imagine the answers would play just as well to a conservative audience, and if anything What’s the Matter with Kansas? tries very earnestly to speak to conservatives if only to offer an alternative to the delusional, incendiary answers they are getting from faux-populist pundits like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. It does a good job of that. Highly recommended.
You can read his whole review here.