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Movie Review

Review: Documentary on Jesse Helms comes from the heart

Web posted on: Wednesday, July 29, 1998 2:59:22 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Director Tim Kirkman's great new documentary, "Dear Jesse," deals with Kirkman's honorable attempts to come to terms with Republican Senator Jesse Helms' often rather less-than-humanistic approach to American politics, and especially, with his enthusiastic distaste for the homosexual lifestyle.

That Kirkman is a gay man who grew up in a small town in North Carolina (Helms' home state) makes that journey even more heart-rending than it might be if the filmmaker was just your garden variety open-minded person who still believes in this country as a bastion of personal freedom, sexual or otherwise.

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie this unflinchingly honest, and that's no small compliment coming from me.

Got something to say about "Dear Jesse"? Go to the boards!

Speaking from his heart

I've reached the conclusion (after 19 months of reviewing films -- many of them horrifically insincere -- for CNN) that the single most important thing I require for a movie to satisfy me is a narrative point of view that exudes honesty. I don't even have to agree with what the writer or director is telling me, I simply want people to convey real ideas without mincing words, or without filtering their opinion through a lowest-common-denominator demographic. In other words: don't sell me, just tell me.

Kirkman is definitely speaking from his heart, and the best conclusion he can come to when trying to decipher Helms' particular brand of strategically righteous hate politics is that Jesse honestly means what he's saying, too. I'd categorize that as very small conciliation, but Kirkman's interviews with a wide variety of North Carolina residents (some of them are on Helms' side) are often quite inspiring, and just as often terribly sad.

Some of Helms' more radical positions are undeniably ugly, to say absolutely everything by saying the least. Kirkman, interviewing subjects as if all of them are his lifelong neighbors, finds that everybody in the state is psychically affected to some degree by Jesse's often repellent old-world zeal.

Helms and his most vocal supporters seem to feel that you can't go any more wrong than to be born a homosexual. Or, more precisely, to be born different than them.

A lot of critics have been saying that Kirkman is surprisingly kind to Helms, but that isn't really true. He does his best to understand the guy, but exactly how kind could you expect him to be?

As more than one person points out, it's not too hard to argue that Helms is a genius at playing to people's fears and prejudices. Having grown up in the South myself, I can verify that the Bible Belt often finds itself in dire need of a scapegoat, somewhere to point the finger when things "go wrong," because, after all, bad things don't happen to good people. Helms and his most vocal supporters seem to feel that you can't go any more wrong than to be born a homosexual. Or, more precisely, to be born different than them.

A message that was sent by the senator to one woman who wrote to him trying to explain that her 31-year-old gay son did not "deserve" to die of AIDS (as Helms suggested of the epidemic's victims), is almost too brutish to comprehend. Helms writes to the mourning woman that he's only sorry her son chose "to play Russian roulette with his sexuality."

Helms' humanity remains hidden

It's easy to see that many of Helms' own constituents feel the good senator is doing the very same thing with his own compassion, but Kirkman almost seems to be exploring Neil Young's bizarre early-1970s song lyric positing the theory that "even Richard Nixon has got soul." If Tricky Dick, then why not Jesse, too?

Well, several different people in the movie are quite articulate in explaining why not. As one man puts it, Helms is finally saying to people what they've been waiting their whole lives to hear -- "No, you're not a mean-spirited S.O.B. You're a real American, like me."

Another person says that Helms is "afraid of his own human-ness." The movie takes that sense of all-encompassing humanity that Helms has such vocal problems dealing with and gently shakes it in his face. He comes out looking misguided at best (which, not surprisingly, is not very often), and repellantly cold-hearted at worst. Kirkman's big accomplishment is that he makes your blood boil even while the heat is turned on low.

"Dear Jesse" contains no nudity, and just an itty-bitty bit of bad language. There's open discussion of homosexuals as if the people who make up that segment of the population are real human beings. Which, of course, they are. I'd say bring your kids, but leave Jesse Helms at home. And don't forget to get out and vote. Not rated. 81 minutes.

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