Film Reviews

REVIEW: The Joe Show

Hot Docs 2014

The Joe Show
USA, 101 min.
Directed by Randy Murray
Programme: World Showcase (International Premiere)

Like Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, Randy Murray’s The Joe Show zeroes in on American pulp reality. The story of Arizona’s County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff,” has been regularly updated on the news channels, particularly Fox, which loves his shtick. Arpaio’s persona resonates with deeply embedded John Wayne fantasies and Tea Party attitudes toward racial minorities, immigrants, and criminals, all of whom they lump together in their view of reality.

Murray’s film, in the making for eight years, dwells on Arpaio gleefully nurturing his big shtick. He’s delighted by the glare of the spotlight, proud of his status as a right wing pop star admired by Ted Nugent and Steven Seagal. Murray had extraordinary access to the sheriff and his “media coordinator,” Lisa Allen, a former TV personality, who unashamedly describes the pair’s attention-grabbing tactics. These have included dressing up jail inmates in pink underwear and parading them through the streets, not to mention photo-ops guaranteeing hot footage of female chain gangs in retro prison stripes. Are these shenanigans violations of human dignity? Not at all, insist blonde, blowsy Allen and her boss. The inmates love being on TV.

Murray structures his visually arresting, sometimes cartoonish looking doc into two movements. The first one sets up Arpaio, the son of Italian immigrants, as a buffoonish media hound who sings “My Way” in an utterly tuneless croak. You can almost see how some people, like Larry King, could find his brazen publicity seeking charming while decrying his practices.

The second movement takes viewers beyond cruelties like forcing prisoners to live in tents and subsist on spoiled bologna to the inmates who died of vicious beatings on Arpaio’s watch. Arizona taxpayers have paid millions in lawsuit damages resulting from these deaths, and Arpaio’s office is currently being monitored for racial profiling. As for media attention the sheriff doesn’t like, he arrested co-founders of the New Times, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, after the publication criticized him. In a surreal touch, he demanded to know the IP addresses of all the readers who visited the New Times website. And the guy sees no reason why he shouldn’t be president of the U.S.

Despite the doc’s revelations of the monster lurking within the buffoon, some observers believe that Murray plays into Arpaio’s media manipulation. In fact, during Hot Docs, he travelled from Arizona to L.A. for a screening of the picture. It’s not really a fair criticism. It would be easy to hammer away at the horrors in Maricopa County rather depict, as Murray does, how evil can be masked by P.T. Barnum tricks orchestrated by a narcissistic scammer and his “media consultant.”

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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