Jerry Brown: The Disrupter
(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Marina Zenovich
Jerry Brown just doesn’t quit. He’s the Energizer Bunny of American politics. Moving from one office to another, he’s held all ranks in the public sphere, except for the big seat in the Oval Office. Brown has the rare distinction of being the governor of California twice, holding the office for a whopping four terms. Director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desire; Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind) looks at Brown’s trajectory as he first led the state at age 36 and came back stronger than ever at 72 years young with double the experience. This amiable doc portrait is a scrappy, spirited underdog tale and insider’s glimpse into the heart of American politics.
Although the straightforward Jerry Brown: The Disrupter salutes the governor, audiences shouldn’t expect a one-dimensional tale. Brown himself ensures that there all shades to his story. In fact, he gives Zenovich a hard time from the outset. The film begins when the director poses Brown a relatively predictable question. She asks Jerry Brown how he’d describe Jerry Brown. Rather than give Zenovich a canned answer, Brown groans. He queries why she bothers putting that matter to him. It’s not a hostile response, nor does Brown seem like a difficult subject. Rather, he’s spent his entire adult life in the public eye selling himself and his ideals to the masses. He knows that everyone familiar with his name can probably sum him up already. He wants the talk to be meaty.
For audiences who can’t answer the question “Who is Jerry Brown?” Zenovich creates a pretty clear picture who Jerry Brown is: he’s a rabble-rouser, forward-thinker, and ambitious lead. Or, he’s a disrupter, as the subtitle aptly states.
Zenovich charts Brown’s story in American politics with his original serving as the through line. The doc details how he followed his father, Pat Brown, in running for governor shortly after Ronald Reagan beat him when he tried to net a third term. Brown admits that his father advised him against running, simply because he considered it career suicide for anyone to make a bid at such a young age. However, the film illustrates how fresh perspectives can invigorate a tired system.
The Disrupter credits Brown for putting concerns about climate change on the agenda early and for addressing growing inequality, which would only worsen in the years of Reagan’s looming presidency. Zenovich also observes how Brown’s ambition nearly derailed his career as soon as it began. It tells how Brown tossed his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for president only a year into his first term as governor. He entered late in the race, a theme that resurfaces, but he doesn’t make any excuses in the interviews.
The film features many talking heads, including former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger (oddly, both of Brown’s gubernatorial tenures were preceded by actors-turned politicians) and Gray Davis, actor Peter Coyote, and a chorus of journalists and former staffers who comment upon Brown’s legacy. The speakers also note the personal costs of dedicating one’s life to service. Brown was a bachelor while serving as governor of California, mayor of Oakland, and other offices, which, on one hand, speaks to the time and commitment of the job and, on the other, his ambitious workaholic nature. A fling with Linda Ronstadt provides some juice, but Zenovich offers Brown a character arc by introducing his wife, Anne Gust, later in the film when Brown grew up a little before another presidential bid.
Brown and Bernie
Jerry Brown: The Disrupter ultimately positions its subject as a precursor to figures like Bernie Sanders, who, like Brown, challenged the establishment of the Democrats in order to lead the party. Some pundits and party loyalists roll their eyes at Brown’s return, but the film offers one of Brown’s finer moments when it highlights his hard-fought-for speech at the Democratic convention. Like Sanders, Brown never won chance to be on the ticket for the White House. However, the film credits them for shaking things up whenever supposed lefties seemed too comfortable with the status quo. A little disruption never hurt anybody.