There’s an almost unnerving self-confidence in aspiring filmmakers. Directing is not for the meek or shrinking violets. Egomaniacs are drawn to it like alpha flies.
Spend any time around clusters of committed filmmaker wannabes and you’ll pick up on a shared confidence bordering on mania, arrogance mixed with a fanatical belief that you have a story that begs to be told and that you’re the only person on Earth who can tell it.
Amplify that passion with the cockiness of a combat veteran deluded by what he’s sure is his unique experience of war, and of his government at its most dangerous. Insulated first by the bubble of his service and then by the echo chamber of far-right fanatics who only listen to other far-right fanatics about “what’s REALLY going on in this country,” that’s David Crowley, a young guy with a mission, a message and a pitch — for a movie he knows MUST be made and that he must may it.
“A Gray State” is an A & E/Netflix documentary about Crowley, whose dream to make a thriller about a FEMA/Blue Helmets/Black Helicopters/New World Order assault on the liberties of “patriots” like himself led to his death, and the death of his wife and daughter.
A quick online search shows the internet marketing of his idea, “Gray State,” a planned $30 million film tying together what he’s learned in a business school’s afterthought “film program” with what his worldview tells him is happening in America.
He had a poster, a complex Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” script, which he structures on note cards in an obsessive/complusive version of Spike Lee’s “How To” guide to making a movie. He had a trailer, and he had an online following.
What he didn’t have was $30 million, a fact that trips up many a movie dreamer. Erik Nelson’s documentary is about Crowley’s single-minded pursuit of that dream, his and his family’s deaths in Minnesota and some of the folks who smell a fresh conspiracy in the tragedy of a man who plunged deep into the rabbit hole and did not come back out.
Yes, “Infowars'” Alex Jones has a cameo. We see Crowley’s extensively self-filmed appearances at Ron Paul “Fests” and protests at the Republican National Convention, his pitches to a sea of disaffected white men like himself.
And Nelson, interviewing Crowley’s sad but undeluded father, his friends and filmmaking partners, friends of his wife (who shared his delusions) and TV and alt-weekly reporters who covered this “mysterious” death in Apple Valley, peels away the layers of doubt that Crowley’s online alt-right crowd want to sew into a murder-suicide that they’ve taken up as a furtherance of his cause.
We see a youth a little too into playing Army dress-up in paintball, moved to enlist after 9/11 and sent first to Afghanistan and then, a disillusioning “stop-loss” deployment to Iraq. We hear and see his mono-mania turn from soldiering to songwriting, and then to filmmaking.
And we listen to his high-speed patter, a breathless, evolving movie pitch that got a prospectus trailer filmed and edited to raise money for a film he hoped would “prevent” a bleak future he saw coming, “by consent or conquest.”
He talks in the glib alarmism of conspiracy buffs, connecting dots that he and other “right thinking” people see point to a moment when “the oligarchs take over” and “society fails,” when his fellow armed-and-patriotic types are all that stands between freedom and FEMA enforced slavery.
Then we watch the myriad notes, the twists and Post-It note turns he tries to weave into his epic script, index cards covering a wall in his production office.
Tell me you don’t see echoes of “A Beautiful Mind.” Nelson lets us see Crowley’s fleeting dream of filmmaking glory, this ache to tell a story he believed in above all else, consume him.
If there is a light moment in the movie, which is punctuated by disheartening footage of his wife, Kolem, and daughter Raniyah, it’s Crowley’s rehearsals for a pitch meeting with two Hollywood “types” he hopes will produce his movie. He taped those rehearsals and his conclusions, that these two small-timers with almost zero credits were at best a long shot at being able to keep any promises they made, are played back for these two, whom like David we’ve sized up as poseurs, and who get offended at how Crowley characterizes them.
What happened at that point may not have been inevitable — a wife, isolated by her control freak husband (directors are the ultimate control freaks), unable to connect with her family or any support system that could save her, a husband spiraling down a hole his friends and family can’t pull him from, a film project going nowhere threatening humiliation in front of all these people he’s convinced to believe in him and donate to the project.
But for a guy trying to absorb the lessons of story theorist and guru Joseph Campbell, the tragic arc is there, the tragic flaws that will be the hero’s undoing plain for all to see.
Nelson might have pursued mental health professionals who like popping up on TV speculating on the mental state of narcissists who document their lives fully enough for at least a textbook “opinion” on what ailed them. Instead, we get a local Fox TV reporter willing to comment out of his pay grade about the madness that followed chasing a dream just beyond Cowley’s reach. A & E documentaries have a deserved quick-and-dirty reputation that leaves out voices of real authority weighing in on Nelson’s conclusion.
“A Gray State” is still an engrossing peek into a world few connect with, an echo chamber where “truth” comes to be only the shared delusions its adherents repeat to each other, and a “hero” in their ranks who died, not from the conspiracies of “dark forces” they see in every corner, but from the madness of failing in front of his fellow fanatics.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence.
Cast: David Crowley Jr., Kolem Crowley, Mason Hendricks, David Crowley Sr., Danny Mason
Credits:Directed by Erik Nelson . An A & E/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:32