Make no mistake: “Created Equal” is a one-sided portrait. The film’s director, Michael Pack, is a longtime conservative filmmaker, whose documentaries include “Hollywood vs. Religion” and “Inside the Republican Revolution,” and who led the right-leaning think tank the Claremont Institute for two years. We first met in 2000 when he brought his film “The Fall of Newt Gingrich” to the Maryland Film Festival; in 2017, we engaged in a public conversation at AFI Docs, discussing ideological diversity within the nonfiction filmmaking community. I have remained friendly with Michael and his wife, Gina Cappo Pack (executive producer of “Created Equal”), ever since. Even without knowing the Packs, I would consider “Created Equal” a success, starting with the subtitle. From the outset, viewers are put on notice that the story they’re about to hear is solely from Thomas’s point of view (the only other voice in the film belongs to Thomas’s wife, Virginia). And that makes a difference. Rather than purport to be an objective, journalistic report, “Created Equal” makes it clear that this will be a highly sympathetic account of its subject — a safe space in documentary form. Thus situated, I was able to watch with the appropriate filter, appreciating the fascinating personal and social history that weaves through Thomas’s biography while taking issue with his most frustrating, even infuriating pronouncements. It’s just this kind of compartmentalization — figuring out what you accept, reject, are surprised by or simply want to file away for further study — that defines critical thinking, a skill that has become virtually extinct in a hyper-polarized culture. Can cinema be a depolarizing force? Back when movies were projected in dark rooms full of strangers, we lowered our defenses to enter a kind of shared dream state. That communal experience might be increasingly obsolete, but even taking in Thomas’s story on a laptop forged a far more powerful connection than would have been created by the intellectual exercise of reading his memoir, or an op-ed. You can toss a book across the room, or click away from an article you don’t like; movies are different, in that they operate both as a delivery system for information and as an emotional medium. Even as I mentally picked apart the film’s most objectionable assertions, the ways Pack used Thomas’s voice and the imagery from his past forced me to sit with the man and his story, and to contend with the paradoxical feelings — compassion, admiration, surprise, deep skepticism — that surfaced as a result. I discovered that even passionate disagreement can coexist with edification, however uncomfortably. Of course, film’s ability to short-circuit rationality is precisely what makes it such a potent — and potentially dangerous — medium. But it’s also what makes film an ideal venue for encountering ideas and experiences diametrically opposed to our own. That doesn’t mean that the act of watching a movie is equal to tacit agreement or that buying a ticket confers endorsement. But it does mean entering a good-faith contract between filmmakers, who must be as scrupulously transparent as possible, and audiences, who vow to remain open-minded and critically engaged. When those conditions are met, cinema gives us the best chance possible to lay down our arms, open our minds, and — just maybe — shut up and listen.
It has been ages since I stepped onstage alone—literally decades—but when a colleague invited me to put together a singer-songwriter act for a venue he books, for some reason I said yes. I’m not sure I was fully aware until I started putting together the show what a gift it has been to work with so many talented players and singers over the years. These musicians consistently take the burden of performance away from me, or at least share the load. That lone spotlight can be awfully hot, I am coming to recall. So I have been shedding like crazy. Come January 16, I’ll be playing and singing 16 songs on piano, guitar and five-string banjo at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, Maryland. I’m a little nervous, but I’m trying to experience that nervousness as excitement, and as an opportunity to revisit a lot of songs that I wrote and tucked away for some future date. That date is nigh. If you’re in the area, you can find tickets at blackrockcenter.org.