It's Friday night, and you feel like avoiding the usual Hollywood fare and taking in a documentary. Which would you rather see: a film about the disastrous consequences of climate change, which foresees humanity's extinction in 2055, or a behind-the-scenes movie about Vogue magazine featuring fly-on-the-wall glimpses of the legendary editor and fashion queen Anna Wintour as she assembles her blockbuster September issue?
A loaded question, to be sure. The first film, called The Age of Stupid, is an impassioned, rather hectoring screed that mixes science fiction and documentary with the noble intention of saving the planet. R. J. Cutler's The September Issue, shot before the economic crisis slashed Vogue's advertising pages, offers a few insights into the worlds of publishing, celebrity, and high fashion, but its appeal is clearly more voyeuristic than analytic: audiences will come hoping for a vérité version of The Devil Wears Prada. No one would describe Wintour as warm, but her dragon-lady reputation is undercut by flashes of humor and compassion and her sheer professionalism.
Had Franny Armstrong's The Age of Stupid been released three or four years ago—before the Oscar-winning ecological wake-up call An Inconvenient Truth grossed a stunning $25 million in the U.S. alone—it, too, might have caused a sensation. But catastrophe docs are now as common as comic-book -movies—except few people plunk down their money to see them in theaters. I.O.U.S.A. told us that the crisis of our national debt could soon crush the country (and sold a grand total of 1,500 tickets). Flow warns of the threat to our water supply; Fuel, the disastrous consequences of our oil dependency. The most commercially successful of these inconvenient -truthtellers—and one of the best—is the scary, eye-opening Food, Inc., which has made a respectable $4 million while exposing the corporate control of our food supply. Though all these documentaries arrive complete with tips on how to stave off global destruction (change your lightbulb! ditch that bottled water!), watch enough of them back to back and you may need to be heavily sedated.
In tough times, even loyal documentary filmgoers seem to be seeking out their own version of escapism. The surprise nonfiction hit this year (discounting ever-popular IMAX nature films) has been Valentino: The Last Emperor, an intimate portrait of the couturier and his decadent dolce vita. Close behind it on the charts was Every Little Step, about the revival of the Broadway smash A Chorus Line. Sure enough, The September Issue—which likewise taps into female, fashionista, and gay audiences—had, in limited release, the biggest documentary opening weekend of the year.
It may be a more frivolous, less "important" choice, but in fact The September Issue is the more absorbing movie. Cutler may not ask hard questions, but he keeps his eyes open and lets his unfolding story tell itself. Armstrong, tied to her worthy agenda, sees only what fits her thesis. It's the difference between a conversation and a lecture. Who wants to take notes on date night?