It’s been a long day, what with the Beer Wars pre-gaming with the folks from Cambridge Common, the film, and then the Lucero concert. Nonetheless, I thought I’d end with a few thoughts on the film.
All told, I think the film fell surprisingly flat. The odd thing is that with all of my critical comments before its release, most turned out to be irrelevant. Not because Beer Wars answered them, but because, frankly, there wasn’t much substance to the film. That surprised me. For a film that was just shy of an hour and a half in length, Beer Wars took a long time to wind up to its point. And it took a really long time building up to the introduction of its main characters, Sam Calagione and Rhonda Kallman. Twenty minutes in fact. So long that I had forgotten they were central to the film. At the heart of the problem was that Anat Baron, the filmmaker, really had no place in Beer Wars at all and ten minutes of the film were probably wasted focusing on herself, including several of the crucial opening minutes. Selling malternatives doesn’t mean you’re in the beer industry. And even if it did, Baron’s placement in the film was either due to a mild case of narcissism or more likely a director’s cloudy vision of the overall project. It needed an editor or producer to step in and tell the director, “Listen, I get what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not working.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
I could talk about the film’s choppy editing, pacing, and scene juxtapositions but really what struck me most was not the irrelevance of the chosen topic, as I once thought, but the missed opportunities in the storytelling. The film is wildly misnamed as it had little to do with the big guys, despite Baron’s repeated cheap pot shots at them and A-B in particular (kudos to the levelheaded analysis of panelist Maureen Ogle, on whom I believe the miscast moderator Ben Stein might have a little economist crush). Beer Wars also did not have much to do with the three tier system. At its core, the film was really about the little guys and their struggles against the greater economic system, which includes both the three tier system and the big guys. And this was such an obvious and advantageous narrative device that it was a bit painful to watch Baron fumble it.
Without question, the strongest parts of the film involved Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of the Boston Beer Company and the New Century Brewing Company. The scenes with her family were worth the price of admission and watching her personal struggles on screen provided the basis for a strong documentary voice. Watching her get politely turned down by a revolving door of individuals, from all three big brewers to a venture capital committee embarrassingly comprised of two kids half her age, was painful. But it was difficult if not impossible to reconcile Kallman’s strident willingness to align her company and products with the country’s biggest brewers (from A-B, Coors, and Miller, to a particularly bittersweet and cut-short pitch meeting with Jim Koch) with Baron’s slagging of big brewers. The filmmaker’s narrative voice or direction were clearly lacking in this pivotal part.
There are lots of little nitpicking points and questions that can be raised as well, such as why Beer Wars focused so much on Kallman’s Moonshot product to the near complete exclusion of the company’s flagship Edison Light beer, the confused poke at neo-prohibitionism (was she making fun of the NBWA, CSPI, or both?), and why Ben Stein was hired to host a panel without some prior rehearsals (didn’t even give my poor buddy Todd Alstrom a chance to discuss the clip in which he absolutely slammed Kallman’s beers, a shot he knew was coming). It seemed a long way to travel for such a short panel filled with Stein’s bumbling presentation and jeremiads in the form of questions.
In the end, it’s not that Beer Wars was irrelevant or dated, as I had worried. It’s that it just wasn’t much of anything but a series of lost opportunities. And frankly, that’s disappointing on several levels, none the least of which is that the available story material turned out to be so rich. The amateurish, Michael Moore-light antics distracted from what could have been a very interesting and personal story of what it’s like to compete in the world of big beer.