Movie Review: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
Based on Thomas Frank’s best-selling political book on the socio-political conflicts, contrasts and contradictions of his home state, Joe Winston’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” explores how real people live, work, think and vote in Oklahoma’s neighbor to the north. While it addresses clearly the fractures in Kansas’ body politic, it is the rare political documentary in which no one is labeled the enemy, leaving it up to the viewer to reach a conclusion.
Frank’s 2004 book, named for a famous 1896 political column in the Emporia Gazette, covered the rise of conservatism in Kansas, a state that was ground zero for 19th century left-wing populist politics, but beginning with the presidential election of 1968, it has been one of the most reliably conservative states in the Midwest. One of Frank’s main points is that conservatives in Kansas are mostly working or middle-class citizens voting against their economic self-interest out of their support of the Republican Party’s stand on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and creationism.
But using Frank’s book as a jumping off point, director Winston takes a less strident view of the state. In fact, it would be entirely possible to watch Winston’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” from either extreme on the political bell curve and see it as a plain-spoken depiction of life as it is. Liberal populists such as farmer Donn Teske have their view of the demise of their livelihood at the hands of conservative economic policies, but then fellow farmer Angel Dillard, a conservative Christian, sees only good coming from conservatism and mostly evil coming from liberalism.
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