Doing the Job, by Tyler Smith
First and foremost, a film critic’s job is to watch movies. As many as we can. Even those that we don’t write about. Because, the more movies we see, the more comprehensive our understanding of the medium. It is this understanding that we carry with us when approaching our own analysis of what film has been and will be. This is why so many film critics lament not being able to see everything; because we instinctively understand that any viewing – even of a film that is little more than a cynical studio calculation – can contribute to the larger conversation and we want to have as few gaps in our own engagement as possible.
Of course, there will always be subsets of movies that critics take less seriously than others. Slasher horror of the 1980s was increasingly viewed with exasperation by critics, who clearly tired of the endless sequels cranked out by opportunistic studios. The rise of faith-based films in the early 2010s was viewed less as a genuine cinematic movement and more as reactionary pandering.
And most recently it seems to be the handful of films produced and geared towards a right-wing audience. As the culture war rages, and American conservatives grow more and more suspicious of what they see as Hollywood’s liberal agenda, certain political commentators saw an opportunity to cater to a conservative audience, by incorporating what they consider right-wing values into filmmaking. Political pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s incendiary documentaries like 2016 and Hillary’s America led the charge in utilizing the power of filmmaking to get a conservative message across.
Maybe the most notable example of this has been the conservative website the Daily Wire, which burst onto the political scene a few years ago, led by the controversial commentator Ben Shapiro, and immediately found an eager audience. As its readership grew, the editors engaged in a cultural full-court press, committing to distributing and eventually producing their own movies. In the last year, the Daily Wire has put out several films, to very little critical fanfare. Only a handful of critics – most of them right-leaning themselves – bothered to review these movies, and even fewer approached them with any level of seriousness, often using the occasion of their review to make larger points about the website itself.
Perhaps the Daily Wire’s films don’t deserve to be thought of in an artistic context. Certainly, its editors don’t hide the fact that they are actively trying to give viewers an alternative to what they view as Hollywood’s woke preachiness, thus perhaps giving critics permission to dismiss them as little more than propaganda. But, then, critics have never really shied away from reviewing propaganda before. In fact, when we look at critical discourse on films like Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will, it would seem that genuine, textbook-definition propaganda is still very much considered a viable topic of discussion. And when we look at directors like Adam McKay and Michael Moore, who are so unapologetically flagrant in their attempt to convey a specific political perspective, it would seem that even the concept of artistic manipulation isn’t a critical taboo. And so the idea of ignoring the Daily Wire’s movies on the basis of not reviewing propaganda doesn’t, in my view, hold much water.
On the other hand, when I see the positive reviews from right-leaning critics and commentators – not to mention the overwhelmingly-positive user ratings – I can’t help but think that it may truly be impossible to approach these films from a purely-artistic perspective. And, again, that may be by design. By playing into the “Hollywood vs. conservatism” dynamic, the Daily Wire has made embracing its movies a statement by those who are ideologically in agreement with it, and it would seem that its subscribers are more than happy to oblige.
But, the fact is, movies can last forever. As long as critics approach film as a valuable snapshot of its time, no movie can ever go fully ignored, even if the political intentions behind its making easily can be. Someday, the Daily Wire will be gone, as will all those who love it and all those who hate it. But its movies will remain, allowing future viewers and critics alike to engage in thoughtful discussion of their artistic merits. This is why these movies deserve to be seen and analyzed.
As such, I’ve decided to watch and review every film that the Daily Wire has produced, approaching them primarily as works of art that are either effective or not. As of now, the plan is to watch Run Hide Fight, Shut In, The Hyperions, What Is A Woman?, and Terror on the Prairie. I may continue to watch the Daily Wire’s offerings after these initial five, but I don’t know. I suppose it depends on how good they are and whether anybody at all is interested in my commentary on them.
Some might think that giving any press to the Daily Wire – even negative press – is harmful. Certainly, when I wrote several film-related articles for the website back in 2020, there were some who didn’t understand how I could ever associate myself with it, and actively condemned my doing so. That I viewed the whole endeavor as a curious sort of experiment – perhaps on par with going on a sort of cinematic missions trip – didn’t seem to matter, even when it became clear that the Daily Wire readership wasn’t particularly receptive to my approach to film (and sometimes outright hostile towards it).
While I respect why people might object to my doing this project, I feel an obligation as a film critic to do so (as lofty as that may sound). I recognize that the platform may be the province of Ben Shapiro, but these films are that of solid directors like D.J. Caruso and Michael Polish and respected actors like Nick Searcy, Thomas Jane, Radha Mitchell, and Cary Elwes. Even in the midst of making movies for a political website, these artists might actually be accomplishing something that transcends their films’ distribution. And these accomplishments might well be worth discussing.
Or not. The films might be awful. There’s really no way to know without first seeing them. And, in the end, that’s the whole point.