Founded in 1935 by The American Legion, Boys State is an event in which young men from around the country gather in various cities for one week to get immersed in politics. In its lengthy history, past members like William J. Clinton, Richard Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Neil Armstrong, Mike Huckabee, Michael Jordan, and Tom Brokaw joined with their fellow budding political minds to form mock cities which would, in term, elect various members to positions of city, county, and state all the way up to the top prize: Governor over all. Though Boys State has existed for 65 years, co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss didn’t look to the event as a potential subject until 2017 when Texas’s Boy State succeeded in passing legislation which enabled them to succeed from the United States. It was an action so bold that it made national headlines and the directing team desired to learn more. Over the course of one week in 2018, McBaine and Moss captured over 42 terabytes of footage as they immersed themselves in events ranging from politically-oriented initial meetings, strategy sessions, run-offs, and elections to the more mundane aspects of Boys State like physical activities and the talent show. What audiences end up with is surprisingly electric as Boys State rapidly begins to feel like we’re watching the future of American politics play out in front of us, a microcosm of our truly dysfunctional two-party system that may be incapable of keeping the country together.
First, before there’s any wondering if Boys State is in some way sexist, there is a Girls State that takes place simultaneously. It is mentioned, but never shown during the whole of Boys State. If only because the doc is so testosterone-filled, there is a bit of curiosity to see how events play out during the other event. To be clear, though, Boys State is not engaging because it’s “boys being boys” but because of how McBaine and Moss edit the story together using a mixture of cinéma vérité footage, narration, and talking head interviews. As such, the audience becomes a silent and unobtrusive observer as those who desire leadership roles jockey for position via methods sincere and duplicitous: the only true judgement coming from how the audience views the decisions made by the four main individuals McBaine and Moss follow. These four young men — quiet Steven Garza, brash Robert MacDougall, political junkie Ben Feinstein, and savvy René Otero — are entirely captivating, not just because of how differently they view politics but in how they engage each other philosophically. There’s a literal split in how Garza and Otero function politically, opting for sincerity and true governing for all, versus in how MacDougall and Feinstein function, opting for game playing and a do-what-it-takes approach. Even though the events of Boys State are entirely low stakes, the manner in which these four and the other 1,096 participants engage with the political process creates a high-energy, edge of your seat experience as their faux-elections become a microcosm of the very real strategies employed by those in office at all levels.
What makes Boys State so particularly immersive is that it appears to have very little in the way of opinion. It’s not there to cast judgment on anyone, but allows the audience to make their own determination about what Boys State means. There are moments in which the camera feels as though its wandering the grounds behind the four main subjects, literally tracking them as they go from place to place, talking to their fellow Statesmen; while, at other times, the camera is intensely close, invading the personal space of each participant as if to make us feel like a confidant. By conveying that feeling of interpersonal connection between the subjects and the audience, a relationship forms wherein you’ll suddenly find yourself terribly invested in their successes, their failures, their good deeds, and their offenses. For instance, shortly after Otero is elected as State Chair and the political platforms within his group are being formulated, he quickly shoots down any calls for succession. Otero is experienced, smart, and an incredible storyteller, something which the audience picks up on quickly from his election speech, and he handles the calls for succession with similar wit and sharp tongue. The response from a minority is to call for impeachment, even going so far as creating an Instagram account to rally more support. One can only guess why the students wanted to call for the platform, though this reviewer suspects it’s because the 2017 class pulled it off and the smiles on the proponents’ faces belie any sense of sincerity on their part, something which Otero appears to pick up on. Though the camp is only one week and the declarations of the Statesmen are, ultimately, performative, Otero takes every request with the sincerity of true governance, seeking to lead his party to Boys State glory. His integrity is alluring and likely why he was elected in the first place, making the challenge to keep his position a surprise nail-bitter. Conversely, Feinstein, as State Chair for the opposition party, willingly plays with everything in his political toolbox in order to secure party dominance. It’s not that Feinstein doesn’t believe in the party platforms, he’s just willing to take advantage of the party in-fighting afflicting Otero to spur more division and apply as much perception bias as possible. That last bit is a tactic well used in a majority of real-world campaigns, and to see it used rather expertly here is a tad chilling. Some would argue that Otero is a good leader while Feinstein is a good politician, and that begs the question of why one should be different from the other and what that means.
A word of warning as you go into Boys State: make sure you’re watching it on as stable a connection as possible. There is so much tension born from anticipation, particularly as the audience grows more involved in Garza, MacDougall, Feinstein, and Otero, that any break in stream absolutely destroys the momentum cultivated by McBaine and Moss. But if it holds, you’re in for an incredible rollercoaster of emotion as lofty idealism clashes with audacious presentation. It’s enough to make one wonder if former president George Washington is correct, that the political machine is, itself, the progenitor of our country’s downfall as those brazen and crafty may win a seat in the halls of government, only to use it for themselves and not for the people. The young minds within Boys State are entirely full of promise, but for and by what, only time will tell.
Available on Apple TV+ August 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.