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‘Boys State’ (review)

Produced and Directed by
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
Featuring Steven Garza, Robert Macdougal,
Ben Feinstein, Rene Otero


War games are a classic way to test military strategy through computer simulation and the occasional mock field exercises. By running the scenarios in this low stakes environment, top decision makers and the troops beneath them hone their skills and strategize for the real battlefield.

Recently documents surfaced that suggested the Pentagon ran a simulation of a “Zbellion”, led by a generation that no longer believes in the American dream and ideals.

Apparently no one at the Pentagon has seen Boys State, the unnerving new documentary from Apple TV+ whose tagline could be “Lord of the Flies, but make it conservative American politics.”

The film opens on scenes of several teenage boys sitting attentively at a table in their local American Legion, being interviewed on their ideas about God, country, and politics in the hopes of being sent to Boys State, “a program for teenagers to learn about democracy and civil discourse through a week-long engagement in self-governance.”

Married documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss captured a week in the Texas chapter, where the summer of 2018 saw over 1,000 boys gathering to create their own government.

With alumni ranging from Cory Booker to Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney, the program has seen many get their first taste of campaigning and political leadership.

The week moves quickly as the boys must build a party platform (they are divided into Nationalists and Federalists at random), elect chairs and other leaders in a frantic rush of signature collection, and mount a full campaign complete with media interviews and stump speeches to lure votes to their side for the highest office in the land: governor.

Exactly how any red-blooded American teen would like to spend 7 days of their summer, right?

It is clear that McBaine and Moss carefully chose which stories to focus on. Wide shots of the halls and fields show endless seas of homogenous faces with mere sprinklings of ethnic diversity here and there.

René Otero, a recently transferred teen from Chicago who uses his excellent speech and debate skills to fend off calls for impeachment by a vocal minority, remarks that he has “never seen so many white people in his life.” While not representative of the demographics of Texas neighborhoods, it certainly resembles the makeup of both the state’s elected officials and the type of kid that knows his way around an American Legion hall.

But not every boy seems to know exactly what they want from the experience, or how to capitalize on the opportunity to preview running for office/establishing your own fiefdom.

Many are enthusiastic in repeating identical conservative viewpoints first shared at their kitchen tables, while some glance around astonishingly in order to confirm just how many of their peers are wildly excited about limiting immigration, owning guns, ending abortion rights (indeed, this was the entire basis of one candidate’s speech), or the American flag in general.

Our main protagonists are each there with agendas in mind, and show how valuable the program can be to applied teens.

Watching the conniving but persuasive leadership style of Ben, who is definitely a “means justify the ends” future FBI operative or the quiet determinedness of dark horse candidate and Houston March for Our Lives leader Stephen Garza is like getting a glimpse into the future state house. The way each side organizes and campaigns will be eerily familiar to adults who subscribe to the many talking heads of evening premium channels.

It is chilling to see how they implement lessons in misdirection and doubt laid out by our current electeds on a model scale, knowing that this behavior is just their first dip in the electoral waters.

As genuinely unnerving as watching the next flock of young conservative minds gear up to replace the aging Republican leadership, it is also incredibly entertaining with suspenseful build ups and an emotional end.

The kids are not alright, but it makes for a great doc.


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