A TOWERING TASK: The Story of the Peace Corps
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alana DeJoseph
Screenwriter: Shana Kelly
Cast: Annette Bening
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/30/20
Opens: May 22, 2020
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “If you are in your twenties and you are not idealistic, you have no heart. If you are in your forties and are idealistic, you have no brains.” The idealism in me began when I, a 22-year-old political lefty, cheered JFK’s founding of the Peace Corps. (Also volunteers doing Peace Corps work were in most cases not threatened with the draft to Vietnam.) I voted for JFK not only for his generally progressive views (forget about Castro) but particularly for his plan to found the Peace Corps. Even now as a “senior” who should know better, I confess to having no brains.
After passing several look-sees into my qualities, I was accepted and went with my then wife to Georgetown University to get preparation to teach English to college students in Bogota. Despite being chosen to spend time in a big city, I got more shots from the nurses than Bonnie and Clyde as though they were preparing us to hit the shanties of Sierra Leone. After aceing the classes in Spanish and U.S. history, we found out in the middle of training that the budget was drastically cut. We were sent home, older but scarcely wiser people.
The Peace Corps still exists despite our turn to faux-populist nationalism, and in fact has passed muster with chief executives as far right as Ronald Reagan, Dick Nixon and George Bush. Why should our pals on the far right support a hippie organization? They noted that the Peace Corps was not only an outlet for idealism but a smart geopolitical move. If mostly young Americans are sent to 60+ countries that requested our help—teaching English, scientific farming, building schools—everyone would love us and we would no longer be subjects covered by Lederer and Burdick’s 1958 book “The Ugly American.”
Now, Alana DeJoseph, employing Shana Kelly’s script, has a new documentary to comment on a program that everyone knew about during the JFK administration but is scarcely publicized today. In this documentary, one that does not match the humor of a Michael Moore or a Morgan Spurlock but makes up for the deficiency with heartfelt anecdotes by talking heads. They include veterans of the two-year stint in places that include even Moscow, and former directors of the Peace Corps like my friend and former head of the New York City Council Carol Bellamy. This is DeJoseph’s her freshman direction of a documentary that allows cinematographer Vanessa Carr to splash pictures across the screen exploring places that have benefitted by America’s idealistic people. Archival films as well, of course.
In one African country where people from the slums never got mail because their streets and addresses had no names, the Peace Corps on premises fixed what should have been a simple problem handled by the local government. In another area, a woman who majored in music gives help to a fellow who has been farming for eighty years. Some denizens of areas like Thailand and Cuba had suspicions that some corps people were CIA, but even Fidel Castro, who licked his chops hoping to uncover plots, had to admit that he did not find a single CIA henchman.
The pictures that we see are all positive, and maybe we should not expect a cinema team enthusiastic about the agency to be critical. As you might expect, local people, for example in Africa, crowd around U.S. volunteers in shows of friendship and trust. Even during the Vietnam War, some locals may have been surprised that the American volunteers were neutral, though most probably leaned against our government’s misguided war policies. In one Central American country volunteers witnessed the outbreak of a Communist revolution, yet even the rebels respected and did not harm the Americans.
Among the talking heads are past directors of the Peace Corps and writers of books about the agency. Given its successes, not even Trump threatened to slash the funding. After the movie was made, the coronavirus broke out everywhere and for the first time in history almost all volunteers were called home. There are currently 7800 Peace Corps volunteers in 140 countries. “A Towering Task” is the first doc to cover the institution. It does the job well.
107 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+