BluRay/DVD Reviews

LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE

By • Nov 1st, 2008 •

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Fascinating, Funny — Necessary

Everyone is familiar with the term “embedded journalists” — reporters living with units of soldiers in Iraq, going everywhere they go, up to and including battle. But very few people know that America owes this coverage of the war to Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine. In 2003, Flynt sued Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense for access to the battlefield instead of canned press conferences, because, according to Flynt: “If Americans are going to send their sons and daughters to die at war, they have a right to know how that war is conducted.” The Supreme Court agreed.

Why don’t more people know this? Well, what do you think of when you hear the name Larry Flynt? But it turns out pornography is only Larry Flynt’s day job. His passion – and maybe his genius– is for freedom of speech. In the engrossing documentary, LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE, Joan Brooker-Marks chronicles the battles of the man who in the last 30 years has won more court victories for the First Amendment than any other American.

Some of Flynt’s story has been told before – fictionalized by Milos Forman in 1996 in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT with Woody Harrelson, Ed Norton and Courtney Love. Forman was drawn to this unlikely hero by first-hand knowledge of repression and censorship – his parents died in a Nazi death camp and he was prevented from making films by the communist regime in his native Czechoslovakia. Although PEOPLE was a critical and box office success, it is widely believed that Flynt’s reputation as smut czar cost Forman the Oscar.

Brooker-Marks gets around — and goes beyond — Flynt’s myth by letting the real characters in the story speak for themselves. And in Flynt’s case, the truth exceeds fiction in every way. You can’t make this stuff up.

Flynt has been fighting in the courts since 1983, when he published a send-up of Moral Majority co-founder Rev. Jerry Falwell talking about his first sexual encounter – with his mother in an outhouse. The prosecutor was Charles Keating of the famous savings and loan scandal, indicted for bilking $3 billion out of federally insured savings accounts. (John McCain was named as a co-conspirator – one of the Keating Five.) Flynt was sentenced to 25 years in jail; when he was finally released on appeal, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down.

Five long years later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Flynt’s favor, finding a right to satire under the first amendment. You can make scurrilous fun of anybody as long as it’s outrageous enough that no one would believe it’s true. William Rehnquist, the most conservative jurist at the time, wrote the opinion. A few years later, Jerry Falwell showed up in Flynt’s office and they became life-long friends, appearing together on campuses and tv – not on behalf of either religion or pornography – but the thing that united them as Americans – free speech.

Since then, Flynt has kept up the fight with characteristic shrewdness and daring. During the Clinton impeachment hearings, he took full-page ads in the Washington Post offering $1 million to anyone who had had an adulterous or illicit affair with a member of Congress. Speaker of the House Bob Livingston resigned when it came out that he not only had several mistresses but was into bondage. Livingston was replaced as Speaker by David Vitter – whose resignation was likewise brought about by Flynt last year.

Maybe, Brooker-Marks suggests, time has a way of actually making news fair and balanced. Flynt is now in his sixties, and his fight has moved from protecting his right to make a buck off offensive material to waking up his fellow Americans to the fact that many of their freedoms can no longer be taken for granted. His speech, while sharp, is slightly slurred as a result of a stroke and surgery to relieve pain from the gunshot to his spine. It is impossible not to see a man who has suffered deeply for his beliefs – no matter how gross you may find them.

Brooker-Marks makes extensive use of archival footage, documenting not only Flynt and his enemies, but his legitimate critics, like Gloria Steinem, as well. The film does not avoid or minimize the reality of Flynt’s pornography empire. We see a Hustler photo shoot, silly and clinical at the same time, and attend an editorial meeting discussing a cover of “two slutty nuns bangin’ a priest.” We also see many of Hustler’s political cartoons, which (pardon the expression) are biting. They appear throughout the film, a recurring leitmotif of the bigger picture, which is that the right to criticize anything and everything is, in fact, necessary to democracy. The film begins and ends with Flynt accepting an award from the ACLU at Harvard Law School.

LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE weaves a great story – filled with the kind of irony only life can create and great filmmakers discern. There are some excellent features on the DVD – additional interviews with Flynt, and legal depositions from the trials that show him cornered and crazed with pain, yet still able to call the judge an asshole. There is also a substantial personal commentary by Brooker-Marks about why she was driven to work with Flynt.

In the end, when you think that the Pentagon would not even allow the coffins of soldiers to be photographed on U.S. soil, you are grateful to Flynt for standing up for all of us. The story of the war is a story the administration had no intention of telling. As Flynt said “If FDR had behaved like Bush, there would be no History Channel.”

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