Review by Sean Boelman
Yael Bridge’s documentary The Big Scary “S” Word is sure to be controversial because of its divisive political statements that it unflinchingly stands by. However, regardless of what one thinks of what the film has to say, it’s undeniable that it doesn’t say them in an effective way, with flimsy argumentation throughout.
In the movie, Bridge explores the ideology of socialism, from its origins to the way in which politicians are trying to enact it in America today. As the playful title suggests, the goal of the film is to debunk some of the myths that the public believes about socialism, and Bridge succeeds to an extent, but comes up short in other regards.
When an invalid argument is presented supporting capitalism, the movie presents a valid argument to disprove that point. However, when a valid argument is presented as to one of socialism’s shortcomings, the film often changes the topic, introducing a valid (but unrelated) argument as to why capitalism does work. This lack of a back-and-forth shows Bridge’s inability to support her message.
It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working, and Bridge’s intent is to propose socialism as a viable alternative. But by failing to disprove the valid arguments against socialism, her proposal isn’t as developed as it needed to be. And at under ninety minutes in length, there was plenty of time for her to present more evidence.
If the movie does excel in one thing, it is that it makes current American politicians look like ignorant jerks. Even if you can’t get behind some of the more radical activists and politicians that the film follows, there is no denying that the people on the opposite end of the spectrum are just as bad if not worse in what they are doing.
Bridge misses a giant opportunity by not focusing more on one specific subject. The portion of the movie that follows Virginia Delegate Lee J. Carter is compelling, but perhaps because he’s not a politician on a national scale, it’s very brief. And those interviews with everyday working-class Americans don’t have the benefit of expert commentary on their side.
As a whole, Bridge’s film is a bit all over the place. In trying to tackle such a big topic like socialism, she isn’t able to settle on a specific approach. There are a lot of different moving parts in play, and it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Although it doesn’t quite reach the level of propaganda, it’s definitely an excessive info dump.
The success of The Big Scary “S” Word will partially depend on the way in which the viewer leans politically, but anyone who is informed will be able to see some of its holes. This is a discussion that needs to be had, but this is not the way to do it.
The Big Scary “S” Word screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.