I’ve now seen three films from director Robert Greene over the course of five True/False festivals. He’s someone who gets a lot of acclaim, especially among critics I respect, but I keep bumping up against the limits of my admiration for his films. With each of the three films, I’ve found a lot to love, but enough that left me cold to cause me to hold back. Bisbee ’17 is the best of the three – in many ways it feels like a work that synthesizes and builds on the previous movies – but it remains dogged by a few flaws.
The concept of the movie is brilliant and ambitious. One hundred years ago, the town of Bisbee, Arizona – a major copper mining site – experienced a worker strike during the middle of World War I. The major labor organization Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) helped organize the workers, but the mine owners, aided by the sheriff, rounded up over a thousand strikers, stuck them on a train, and deported them to the middle of the New Mexican desert. Despite its importance in the life of the town, the deportation has largely remained hidden over the subsequent century. Greene sets out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bisbee deportation by having current citizens of Bisbee – many of them descendants of the strikers and the mob that drove them out – recreate the horrifying events of July 12, 1917.
Greene, always sensitive to the blurriness of the lines that separate history from fiction, plays with his big canvas in many delightful ways. As he probes the community for its reactions to the deportation, he discovers a mix of anger, defensiveness, and indifference, but over the course of the film many characters change from one stance to another. As townspeople fill out the various roles – mine owners and managers, police, irate mob members, strikers – the film captures a town ambiguously fleshing out its own past. It’s not entirely clear how the roles were chosen, but many of the casting choices are inspired: a young Latino whose mother has been deported back to Mexico plays a striker, many of whom were non-white immigrants; two brothers whose great-grandfather drove out his own brother play both sides of the family divide; and an activist/artist gets to fulfill her dream and play dual roles as a Wobbly (the nickname for IWW members) and the photographer who captured the deportation on film.
Yet the diverse and interesting cast leads to the film’s biggest pitfall, a lack of narrative balance. There are so many fascinating parts and people on display, so of course choices had to be made, and not every thread can get as well explored as one might hope (the current cut clocks in at two hours, but I’d be fascinated to see the three-hour cut that someone told me exists). But Greene leans too heavily on some story lines while barely developing others. He narrows in especially on Fernando Serrano, the young Latino. I understand this: he’s a sympathetic person, and he slowly morphs from indifferent to the town’s history to politically aware. But after multiple scenes of Serrano walking aimlessly around town and turning a soulful face to the camera, I began to wish for a little less of that and a little more on any number of other characters. Greene, trained as an editor, puts the pieces of his puzzle together seamlessly, but there are too many gaps in the picture.
I don’t want to diminish Greene’s accomplishment with this film. Visually, he’s stepped up to the challenge of a larger scale with aplomb, with sweeping long shots that capture the austere, forbidding beauty of the desert, and a stunning, dynamic scene set in what appears to be an abandoned theater. Keegan DeWitt’s spare score haunts the edges of the film, playing up the theme of the ghost town – what Bisbee has become since the mining companies left. As great as this all is, however, I feel like Greene’s aesthetics continue to outpace his narrative instincts. Bisbee ’17 diminishes that gap, but can’t close it entirely.