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Join or Die

Who would have thought that the thing that would save American Democracy and deliver us to an age of renaissance would be…clubs? That’s the thesis of this documentary which opened the 2024 Jacksonville Film Festival. Directed by Rebecca and Pete Davis and featuring a bevy of politicians, academics, and community/civic leaders, JOIN OR DIE uses the critically acclaimed book and teachings of Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) to chart the course of the decline of America’s social problems by comparing them against how many clubs Americans are part of.

This feature-length documentary has some fantastic interviews with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and extensive footage of Putnam himself. Never boring or tedious, JOIN OR DIE follows Putnam’s borderline obsession that began with the famous inauguration speech given by John F. Kennedy where he told America “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. This speech was the spark that ignited Putnam’s fire and would later serve as a full circle point in his life as he is presented with a medal by former President Barack Obama at the White House.

Watching Putnam begin his research in Italy during the beginnings of some of their newly formed local governments and giving him unprecedented access to prove his academic theories which would later be included in his book, Putnam, and by extension the filmmakers, show that proving a scientific theory isn’t easy, nor does it immediately come with the respect and admiration of one’s peers and the media. If this film proves anything, it’s that pundits and the media decades ago are still as sensationalized and irresponsible in their reporting as they are today.

The movie is incredibly uplifting and gives some measure of hope, if for no other reason that the graphs and information used to measure the decline of civilization as we know show a curve that indicates that while things might look dark at the moment, the future seems promising as long as the citizens are willing to become “joiners” and participate in their local communities.

One interesting thing that came up during the screening was that the filmmakers weren’t able to be in attendance that evening because they were presenting their movie to the nation’s leaders in Congress. This goes to show the power and inspiration that movies can provide for lasting change, or at the very least we now know that Congress gets the occasional movie night. Who knows? Maybe they’ll form a film club, and things will start changing for the better.

Join or Die
Reviewed as part of the 2024 Jacksonville Film Festival
Join or Die | March 12, 2023 (United States) Summary: Centers on America's civic unraveling through the journey of scientist Robert Putnam, whose research on the decline in American community lights a path out of our democracy's present crisis.
Countries: United StatesLanguages: English
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