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Fly Boy

A revealing look at how state politics works

People devote huge amounts of attention to the U.S. Congress--but most of us know almost nothing about how our legislature works. As I found during the few years I spent writing about Massachusetts state politics, including a year at the Boston Globe's state house bureau, legislatures are treated as arcane curiosities--that is, until they are rocked by some extravagant sex or bribery scandal, only to return a few weeks later to their original humdrum state.

Opening the doors to this world is the veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose latest work, State Legislature, airs on PBS Wednesday night. It is the latest in a series of films Wiseman had made, over the course of more than 40 years, about life in mundane institutions--the zoo, high school, public housing projects, to name a few recent examples. In this case, Wiseman spent 160 hours filming Idaho's lawmakers during a twelve-week session in 2004.

Wiseman employs a strict fly-on-the-wall style, eschewing narration and direct interviews for extended scenes of legislators in action. He places us in committee hearings, floor debates, hallway conversations, and meetings lawmakers hold with lobbyists, reporters, and constituents. The result is artful, turning the mundane work of governing into something poignant--even, at moments, exotic: For a Northeastern viewer, at least, it helped greatly that this film featured the role of arch-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists in that reddest of red states. (Wiseman, judiciously resists making ideological judgments with his camera and editing, it should be noted.)

Despite this regional flavor, many of the issues we see the Idaho legislature grappling with are national ones--including debates over gay marriage and clamping down on "video voyeurism," (i.e. creeps who film women surreptitiously and post the footage on the Internet). Watching these debates play out in detail, I was reminded of the sincerity and dedication to public service of many of the people I encountered in the Massachusetts legislature--but also, unfortunately, of the feeble intellectual caliber of so many who wind up in state and local politics.

Last weekend Wiseman told The New York Times that he intended to "show the process ... of how democracy works." His film does that expertly. But his depiction is missing one component: The unseen sleaze that greases nearly all parliamentary bodies. In Boston I found a state house driven by lobbyist money, by intimidation and retribution from powerful legislative leaders, by crude deal-cutting and logrolling. These are elements of the process that no sane politician would allow a camera to film, and thus it's not surprising that Wiseman was not able to capture them. Viewers should enjoy the public face of state government that Wiseman has captured. But they should also keep in mind that, as with all politician institutions, there's always more than meets the eye.