A plane has two wings,” a high school junior representing the Federalist Party says to a room full of teens. “A right one and a left one…”
And you need both to make the plane fly. Maybe not the best metaphor out there, but it’s something. He’s not a politician yet, but he’ll get there. He’s got the hair and he’s got the nose. The speaking part, that’ll come later.
“That’s politics… I think,” he says. “That’s politics.”
His name is Robert MacDougall and he’s one of the 1,100 young men who have been selected by the American Legion to participate in Boys State, a leadership program where high schoolers learn about democracy and civil discourse through a weeklong experiment in self-governance. The program dates back to 1935, and past alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Samuel Alito. Apple CEO Tim Cook participated. So did NBA greats Phil Jackson and Jerry West. It’s no reach to say that these boys are the future leaders of tomorrow: A fact filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss present with equal parts hope and concern.
Boys State is riveting stuff. McBaine and Moss filmed during the 2018 assembly and editor Jeff Gilbert cuts down hours upon hours of material into one of the tightest, most entertaining two hours you’ll spend in front of a screen this summer.
And the candidates are a large part of that entertainment. Robert is one of the many here you’ll want to pigeonhole before McBain, Moss and Gilbert provide a reversal. Robert’s pro-choice, but he knows that won’t get him anywhere with his party. Politics is a game, and he’s playing to win. If that means burying his true self behind a 1,000-watt smile and phony promises, then so be it.
Sides mean nothing and winning means everything. Upon arrival at Boys State, the teens are divided into two parties: Federalist and Nationalist. But the tenets of those parties are pushed aside for modern-day conservative values. As René Otero, a Black teen from Chicago, points out, Boys State is “conservative indoctrination.” He’s right, but McBaine and Moss let the cameras roll, revealing that Robert isn’t the only one here harboring liberal beliefs. On first blush, Boys State appears to be either a celebration or castigation of conservative white masculinity. But that’s just a ruse, a way for McBaine and Moss to distract you while slowly pulling the rug out from underneath. Once that’s gone, preconceptions follow suit. All that remains is Boys State’s artfully crafted drama.
René is one of three who steal the show. Another is Steven Garza, whose story is so beautiful it’s best discovered in real time. The third is Ben Feinstein, a bilateral amputee who lost both legs and the use of his left arm to meningitis when he was 3.
If the long arc of history bends toward justice, then we should see two of these boys grow into leaders unlike any other. Of course, there are a couple of kids here who will no doubt spend the rest of their lives in politics, and not for the betterment of humanity. So it goes. As our friend Robert likes to say: A plane has two wings…
ON THE BILL: Boys State is available to stream on Apple+ starting Aug. 14.