Hypocrisy may be the mother’s milk of politics, but Kirby Dick focuses on a particularly deplorable variety of it in his documentary about closeted gay officials who promote an anti-gay agenda, either out of professional calculation or psychological denial and self-loathing. “Outrage” is clearly an activist piece of filmmaking, but cleverly put together and highly enjoyable, with a spirit more of righteous indignation than mere anger. After all, it’s always fun to see liars get what they deserve. It does, however, raise some troubling journalistic questions.
“Outrage” starts, of course, with Senator Larry Craig, the ostensibly rock-ribbed Idaho Republican senator whose arrest for solicitation in a Minneapolis airport restroom quickly became a joke when he refused—and still refuses—to admit the facts. Dick seizes on the opportunity to use the episode to generate guffaws (as well as amazement at the loyalty his wife has continued to exhibit—another theme that runs through the film). But though that case is the touchstone here—others involve fellow Republicans Louisiana congressman Jim McCrery, California congressman David Dreier, behind-the-scenes GOP organizer Ken Mehlman and Democratic Mayor Ed Koch of New York and Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey (Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley is given shorter shrift)—the real focus is on Mike Rogers and Michelangelo Signorella, who work to reveal such deception by outing gay politicians whose votes don’t match up with their personal lives. And on the issue of why the mainstream media are so reluctant to publicize that incongruity, which might successfully pander to the prejudices of voters but hurts real people in the process.
But the difficulty faced by the journalists the film criticizes is spotlighted in Dick’s treatment of the case of Florida governor (and now senatorial candidate and prospective presidential aspirant) Charlie Crist, around whom suspicion—and in some cases, direct evidence—has swirled for years, which (as Dick implies) he’s deflected with convenient news-ready dates and even a recent wedding. The picture might make a strong circumstantial case on Crist, but it’s one-sided, and any organization with deep pockets that made it publicly would surely find itself in serious legal and financial danger. Practicality is a rule in journalism as well as politics, after all.
Still, “Outrage” does score strongly on the individual instances it raises, although a target like Craig makes it easy and, of course, there’s no opportunity for cross-examination. It also takes the occasional hopeful detour by interviewing politicians who have come out—Barney Frank, of course, and McGreevey (though in his case he was definitely pushed by events, and hardly deserves unqualified praise). And perhaps the best example is of Arizona Republican congressman Jim Kolbe, who offers a truly inspiring recollection of how his colleagues—notably John McCain—treated him after he revealed his orientation in 1996 (once again, in reaction to potential outing).
“Outrage” probably won’t incite the titular emotion from most of its viewers, who are likely to be in agreement with its argument even before walking into the auditorium. It’s more likely to make them pleased that such flagrant hypocrisy is finally getting the attention it so rightly deserves. Perhaps it will have some small practical impact; after all, shame and ridicule have worked, at least to some degree, in the past. Maybe they will again.