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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Swamp’ on HBO, a Revealing Look at DC Politics

President Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on the promise to “DRAIN THE SWAMP,” that is to wrest the U.S. Government out of the clutches of corporate lobbyists and special interest groups. Four years later and it seems that Trump has only mired DC deeper into corruption. HBO’s The Swamp follows three “rogue” Republican congressmen — Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) — as they struggle to reform the government and defend their ideals.

THE SWAMP: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: Created by the team behind the electric Netflix doc, Get Me Roger Stone, The Swamp is an in-depth look at the corruption eating away at the heart of the U.S. Government. The film however takes a fascinating swerve and rather than cast Republicans or Democrats as villains, looks at the infrastructure of corporate lobbyists and the cancerous partisan divide in America as the evils that need to be fought.

The film also seemingly starts off as a portrait of three would-be Republican reformers: the viral moment-obsessed Gaetz, staunch libertarian Massie, and Buck, who literally wrote a book called Drain the Swamp. While most coverage of DC politics looks at public servants according to political ideology, The Swamp is more interested in what each of these politicians is doing to actually drain the swamp. We see all three become interested in a bi-partisan bill to restore the right to declare war back to Congress.

However The Swamp doubles as a really fascinating portrait of life for these three Congressmen during one of the most volatile political years on record. The film coincides with the Mueller testimony, Trump’s impeachment, and the El Paso mass shooting. Through it all, the film tries to give its subjects the benefit of the doubt while also calling everyone out on their own personal hypocrisies.

Ultimately, The Swamp is a depressing look at gridlock in Washington and a wistful plea for reform and bi-partisan cooperation.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: While it comes from the filmmakers behind Get Me Roger Stone and follows the firebrand Gaetz, it feels closer to another Netflix doc: Knock Down the House. That’s thanks to the film’s choice to profile many pols and its emphasis on procedure. In truth, the film’s tone reminded me of The West Wing during episodes where the Bartlett administration was hamstring-ed by congressional procedure.

Performance Worth Watching: Like it or not, but this film will stick in your memory as a profoundly good portrait of Rep. Matt Gaetz. The Florida politician is best-known for his slavish devotion to Donald Trump and propensity for stunts. We get all of that here, but we also get a fascinating profile of a young politician whose personal life is, uh, rather sad. He often has to eat Uber Eats alone in his Congressional office, where he sleeps. His sycophantic calls to Trump also smack of a tragic emotional co-dependence. Both men seem to live for the praise they heap on one another.

Memorable Dialogue: Rep. Thomas Massie is maybe overly fond of sci-fi/fantasy allegories. He not only explains that he and pal Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) have nicknamed DC the “Death Star,” but that he sees himself as Luke Skywalker looking for the one flaw that will blow it up. However even that’s outdone when he refers to his Congressional pin as his “Precious,” saying he hopes he stays a “hobbit” and doesn’t turn into a “gollum.”

Matt Gaetz on camera in The Swamp
Photo: HBO
Sex and Skin: The only whiff of any sex in The Swamp is a total downer. Gaetz defends former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) when she was dragged into a sex scandal thanks to her vengeful ex. However this episode sets up one of the most interesting scenes in the film: a friendly dinner between Gaetz and Hill where she’s able to press him on some of his own hypocrisies.

Our Take: The Swamp‘s biggest strength, its nuance, is potentially its weakness. Viewers are so accustomed to super biased storytelling when it comes from contemporary political docs that The Swamp‘s extremely sensitive portrayals of three controversial Republican politicians as people might actually upset some viewers. Furthermore, the film doesn’t make hard and fast judgments on them, but rather attempts to confront each with portraits of their own hypocrisy.

In the end, it will leave you feeling enraged, despondent, and hopefully, ready to vote in November.

Our Call: Stream it! At the very worst, you’ll learn more about how Congress works (insomuch as it doesn’t).

Where to stream The Swamp

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