All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is simply staggering, a refreshingly angry film that sidesteps nearly every convention of typical documentary filmmaking to tell a unique life story. Walking in to the theater, I knew I was in capable hands with director Laura Poitras (Oscar winning director of Citizenfour) at the helm, but I couldn’t have imagined either the emotional depths or the crystal clear storytelling of the film which juggles several different topics simultaneously but never feels disorganized or rushed. Not since 1994’s Hoop Dreams, one of the greatest films of all time, have I felt so walloped by a documentary. I was completely engrossed for the entire 117 minutes.
The subject of the film, and its narrator, is Nan Goldin, one of the most renowned American photographers of the 20th century. In one half of the film, we follow Nan’s path from childhood to becoming one of the most influential photographers of the 1970s and 1980s whose work shone a light on LGBT+ and gender issues well before they were even being considered in the mainstream. By utilizing her close friends as subjects, she captured a literal snapshot of the lives of young adults in New York City’s Bowery right at the precipice of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Eventually her work became a close examination of the epidemic as many of her close friends were literally dying all around her.
The other half of the film involves Nan’s work with P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an organization she helped found years after a drug overdose nearly took her life. For years, Nan had been severely addicted to Oxycontin prescribed to her originally by doctors, and she was finally able to get treatment and remain sober after her overdose which she considers herself incredibly lucky to have survived. The film investigates Nan and P.A.I.N.’s main objective which is to expose the billionaire Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma (makers of Oxycontin), who have used philanthropy to try and cover their name and role in the opioid epidemic by giving money to the world’s biggest and most prominent art museums. Nan and P.A.I.N.’s members, each with a deeply personal connection to the opioid crisis, stage non-violent demonstrations at the Met and Guggenheim museums, calling for all of the world’s museums to reject the charitable gifts of the Sackler family and to have the family’s name removed from the walls of these museums.
The irony of Nan’s situation never fails to be fascinating. Her life’s work is her art, and her art is prominently displayed in many of the museums which are heavily funded by the Sackler family. However, the Sacklers helped manufacture the drug that nearly killed her. The cyclical, twisted nature of that is at the heart of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, and in showing us true stories and accounts of people whose lives were forever ruined by the opioid crisis, the anger and disgust in the film becomes palpable and shared by the audience. This is felt most strongly in one of the movie’s many jaw-dropping scenes when a judge orders members of the Sackler family, as part of a settlement granting them lifetime immunity, to listen to harrowing firsthand accounts of victims and their families.
Even with all of the emotionality of P.A.I.N.’s work and Nan’s history documenting her personal connection to the HIV/AIDS crisis, there is still yet another heartbreaking layer to Nan’s life. The history of Nan’s upbringing and childhood provides the emotional bookends to the story, and it is unspeakably sad. She tells us about her older sister Barbara who was rebellious, headstrong, and interested in girls at a young age. Their parents, ill-equipped to even handle raising children at all, let alone a “difficult” one, simply shipped Barbara off (Rosemary Kennedy style) to mental institutions until she eventually committed suicide. Nan recalls her mother trying to cover the facts and tell everyone the death was an accident which ultimately becomes the catalyst for Nan’s very frank and truthful artistic work as another act of rebellion against her damaged parents.
While it is true that this film does deal with several dark subject matters, Poitras never lays it on thick and it never becomes maudlin or mawkish. In fact, there are many moments of great humor in the film which are a credit to the effervescent personality of Nan Goldin. She is a fast-talking, whip-smart New Yorker who you sense has leaned on her sense of humor in her life to help deal with many trials and tribulations. As someone personally who uses humor and sarcasm as a crutch to deal with a lot of life’s difficulties, I connected with her incredibly strongly and was moved and impressed by her incredible resilience.
As I write this review, the Producers Guild of America has just announced their nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2022, and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed has been omitted from the list of seven (!!!) nominees. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for its chances at the Oscars, and yesterday I would have said if this film does not win the Oscar for Best Documentary, then the Academy is simply not paying attention. Today, its chances look deadly. Perhaps it just hasn’t been seen by enough voters; I feel lucky to have seen the movie and been pleasantly surprised by its undeniable excellence and impact. It is always tricky to compare narrative fiction films to documentaries as they are like comparing apples and oranges, but this is likely my choice for film of the year. Poitras does such a masterful job of interweaving several threads of Nan Goldin’s life to tell her story, and I walked away stunned, touched, and entertained by the whole experience.
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