A person sits in the back of a car, gazing through the window at the world outside. It is a blur of motion and activity. Perhaps they look quizzical, or concerned, or introspective, or forlorn. Perhaps they are old, a staid and weathered face implying the wisdom of years – contrasted with the busy, thoughtless universe on the other side of the glass. This shot is a cliché in documentary filmmaking because it is highly efficient, communicating a lot in a short amount of time.
It is how ABC TV’s two-part series Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader begins. Beams of sunlight flood the inside of the car. The former Prime Minister can be seen in the foreground; Sydney Harbour Bridge through the window in the background. This opening is more than a little cut-and-dried, but the program gets worse before it gets better – giving way to a gushing love-in.
Narrator Richard Roxburgh explains to us that “Australians have never been so distrusting of politicians, but there was a time when things were different.” Cut to footage of Hawke walking onto the stage in his heyday, in front of an adoring crowd. Compliments arrive from various voices. We are told “Bob was always a leader.” He “had a sense of destiny” and “self-belief, utter self-belief.” And that “his government produced modern Australia.”
Continuing this slab of schmaltz – the political documentary’s equivalent of dripping cheese – Roxburgh chimes in: “Bob Hawke was one of them, but he was also one of us.” Cue vision of Hawke on the cricket pitch, then drinking a beer. We return to the car, the subject looking long-faced – for a touch of pathos. Then onto the next part of the love-in. This bit is about Hawke the hottie (“Australian women liked him very much”).
Nobody can say director Bruce Permezel, whose misty-eyed style was better suited to 2007’s Choir of Hard Knocks, didn’t have his eye on the clock. All of this transpires in less than 90 seconds. The opening of The Larrikin and the Leader was designed with a pedantic, television sensibility. Hit the audience hard and fast, and make the opening scene a commercial for the series itself.
Some faux balance is thrown in for good measure. Former Labor minister and apparatchik-cum-media commentator, Graham Richardson, says Bob “did some appalling things. Shocking. Just plain bloody shocking.”
Instead of seriously contemplating his subject’s flaws, the director rewrites vices as virtues.
What were these bloody shocking things? Richo keeps mum, playing the role of the annoying person who says ‘I have this great secret, but I can’t tell you about it’. You get the sense Permezel wouldn’t have pushed him, and may not have been interested in a genuinely confronting response. That would spoil the vibe.
The Larrikin and the Leader purports to be a warts-and-all picture of Hawke, personal and professional. But instead of seriously contemplating his subject’s flaws, the director rewrites vices as virtues. We all are – or should be – people who learn from our mistakes. Thus the segment about Hawke’s drinking, is not really about alcoholism – it’s about the strength of character required to take the highest office of the land seriously.
Perhaps some critical distance to the subject might have helped. The filmmakers join Hawke in his home, where he regales them with stories, and a husky rendition of Solidarity Forever. He talks about how the ordinary people of Australia aren’t fools: “They know, and they can sense, when a politician’s dinkum.”
Is this series dinkum? When subjects and circumstances cannot be seen clearly, because the director’s breath is steaming up the lens, it has a negative effect on virtuous and questionable behaviour alike, placing them in the same kind of fog – through which a vision of the truth always feels elusive.
Last year’s Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, with John Howard in front of the camera drooling over the legacy of his hero, was similarly shameless. But at least then the partisan could be understood by the personal; our expectations of Howard are rather different to our expectations of a documentary filmmaker.
The Larrikin and the Leader works best as a formulaic, talking heads, ‘good old days’ account of Hawke’s political career, albeit dry and affected by nostalgia. The other side of it, the study of the larrikin (i.e. the real person) plays like an elongated This is Your Life special, or a long, estate-monitored Wikipedia page.
That opening vision of Hawke in the back of the car, watching the world go by, is returned to throughout the running time. As if imbuing the production with pathos were as simple as flicking a switch.
Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader airs Sunday 11 February and Monday 12 February