The Best and Worst Documentaries of the Tribeca Film Festival

Capsule reviews of 24 non-fiction films from the fest, including "The Reagan Show," "Whitney: Can I Be Me," and "Gilbert."


The Reagan Show

This subject of Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s semi-experimental documentary is President Ronald Reagan, but it’s not the story of his campaign, reelection, governorship, etc. It’s a look at the lenses through which we did and did not see that office for eight years, dismissing talking heads and summarizing narration for a brilliantly edited multi-media montage of newscasts, TV addresses, and official White House videos. But “official” doesn’t tell the whole story – more often than not, we’re seeing pre-roll and outtakes, making this the political documentary counterpart to bootleg records, where the most telling moments are often the studio chatter. Peering at the Reagan years through that specific prism underscores the degree to which this administration manipulated images to stage their message, to an extent unprecedented at that time, but S.O.P. these days. Or, to put it another way, shudder along with Peter Jennings as he contemplates how “politicians who come after him are going to have to succeed first on television.” Uh huh.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson was a beloved trans activist – “Queen of the Village,” she’s called – best remembered as one of the women who started the Stonewall uprising. But in 1992, she died under mysterious circumstances; David France’s documentary follows fellow activist Victoria Cruz as she re-examines that 25-year-old cold case. In investigating her death, the film opens up her life, serving as a primer of the gay liberation and modern LGBT movements, but with a personal angle – and an eye on the struggle of trans people, within the movement, for visibility then and now. France also follows strands of Cruz’s own history, as well as her advocacy for current victims of anti-trans violence, so it’s an ambitious film, but never overwhelmed. It masterfully weaves together past and present, not only telling the story we’ve come to see, but the larger one besides.