The temptation for documentarians to turn their films into personal journeys is an understandable one, although it’s rarely a sound idea. With exceptions (Nicholas Kahn’s My Architect, Ross McElwee cinediaries), a filmmaker injecting him or herself into the action tends to amount to little more than a distraction, lacing hard-earned reportage with unnecessary narcissism. In The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki is almost rarely seen, and his personal asides only total a handful of screen minutes. But even a little Jarecki is enough to subtract credibility from what is otherwise a well-researched and (mostly) well-argued polemic against the war on drugs.
Jarecki’s argument is really journo-turned-TV maven David Simon’s argument, which is this: Government raids on the drug trade have done little to mollify the problem while essentially targeting low-income neighborhoods, where the lack of jobs create dealers and users alike. At best, it’s a broken system; no convict is properly rehabilitated, so when they’re released back into society, they’re recidivists waiting to happen. (Even Richard Nixon, of all people, spotted this problem: When he kickstarted the drug war, he earmarked two-thirds of its allotted budget for drug treatment.)
Simon spent five seasons of The Wire elaborating on these points in fine detail, and in House, his input, to say nothing of his many appearances as a talking head, is such that he ought to have asked Jarecki for a creative credit. House essentially functions as The Wire: The Documentary, its points trenchant but still only basic, thus rendering the film almost entirely superfluous. The few arguments chosen from the other side are weak and reliably gung-ho—all tough talk, short-sighted about the grim effects of results that prove, at best, to be only palliative.
Few have asked about the alternative to the drug war, and it’s a question worth asking. House is not that documentary, although it is the kind where even the peerlessly intelligent Simon stoops to playing Godwin’s Law. He calls the war on drugs a “Holocaust in slow motion” and infers that what has turned into a war on the lower class is intentional genocide comparable to the Nazis. Simon’s argument is persuasive without such dodgy accusations, much as Jarecki’s documentary is incisive without him injecting himself into the picture.