61 Bullets (2014)
The crime documentary has been something of a standby in pop culture for a long time. NBC’s Dateline is basically just a series of journalistically dense crime documentaries and the Investigation Discovery channel is a dispensary of fear as it recounts its multitude of violence-laced tales of criminal activity and death. But with recent sensations like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, there seems to be something of a renewed interest in the sub-genre beyond the stalwart televisual output. Serial captured our innate sense of wonder and the crave to know more, although its painfully honest non-ending was certainly a letdown, especially when compared to the jaw-dropping flare with which The Jinx exited. 61 Bullets is something of a middle, more cinematic than a weekly outing but still a bit slight.
Effectively, the directors are putting on a history lesson for the audience, but it avoids feeling like we are being instructed by an annoyed teacher.
At the core of 61 Bullets is one of those stories whose personal relevancy greatly depends on your location. For residents of the state of Louisiana, the tale of Huey Long and his apparent assassination is a history class staple, with any field trip to the state house surely requiring a moment of reflection at the site of the bloodshed. However, outside of the bayou state, the knowledge of the incident is sparse. Hell, for those not steeped in political history, even the name Huey Long isn’t altogether familiar. Directors Louisiana Kreutz and David Modigliani appear to recognize this very situation and build their film in a way that works for either audience.
The historical stage of Louisiana is set immaculately. Effectively, the directors are putting on a history lesson for the audience, but it avoids feeling like we are being instructed by an annoyed teacher. The material feels fresh and the archival footage, period photos, and newspaper headlines are leveraged impressively. Kreutz and Modigliani do not just retell this story but gradually develop a cohesive and compelling narrative that propels the story forward. Within 61 Bullets is two stories, one of the past and one of the present, but they weave in and out of one another, informing and providing a wonderful crescendo. However, the past is where the story’s strength resides and the farther we journey from it the greater its power recedes.
It becomes apparent fairly early on that this film will not reach some bombastic conclusion, one where the truth of Huey Long’s death is revealed and Dr. Carl Weiss is vindicated. Surely, the directors would have loved to see this happen. It isn’t exactly hidden that the filmmakers reside squarely on the side of skepticism in terms of the veracity of the tale as written. But, what is to be done? The event occurred nearly a century ago, in a time where forensics was a foreign concept and the news cycle was far longer than 24 hours. Luckily, they seem to realize this, remaining steadfast in the subject matter but turning inward and attempting to make the film far more personal.
[Ida Boudreaux] offers us an emotional and personal window […] all with a conversational ease akin to sharing a sweet tea on her porch.
The film shifts away from the search for truth and becomes more of a journey to closure. Carl Weiss Jr. is positioned to be a powerful emotional through line for the film. The son of the slain alleged assassin, a boy that never knew his father and struggles to attain any semblance of truth of the incident. However, Weiss appears to have moved on long ago. His father was a man he never knew, so while he seems to recognize that he should care, he is all the happier to keep it squarely in the past. His presence and emotional vacancy are somewhat of a hindrance. If Carl doesn’t really care, should we? Luckily, 61 Bullets also brings us the gift that is Ida Boudreaux. The sister-in-law of Dr. Weiss, Ida is the embodiment of southern charm and hospitality. She offers us an emotional and personal window into the man that was and the family and future he was shaping, all with a conversational ease akin to sharing a sweet tea on her porch. When we should be politely on the outside, Ida welcomes us in with open arms and ends up being the film’s most apparent and accessible benefit.
The back and forth between the clinical investigative journalistic side and the more emotional personal aspect is what ultimately keeps 61 Bullets from greatness. It begins on the historical side and admittedly it does so with aplomb. Finding a balance between educational and entertaining, the tale is impressively well paced and provides just enough context to be historically dense while not becoming overly taxing. However, as the filmmakers begin to recognize the evidential limitations and the general political machinations opposing any change to history, they must course correct. The story then becomes about the people and just how difficult it can be to change history regardless of what may be the truth. The emotional connection is limited, largely due to the Carl Weiss Jr.’s own apparent disinterest in delving further. While some fantastic personalities, like Ida Boudreaux, are endlessly charming and do a lot to bridge the gap, it is just too wide an expanse to cross. 61 Bullets is quite successful as a piece of historical retelling but struggles to make the move to the present, feeling somewhat inconsequential and emotionally sparse.
61 Bullets is quite successful as a piece of historical retelling but struggles to make the move to the present, feeling somewhat inconsequential and emotionally sparse.