Whether muckrakers, clowns, crusaders with microphones, faux men of the people, or all of the above, first-person documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, and Morgan Spurlock are entertainers first and journalists second. Not far removed from the toothy "faces you can trust" on broadcast news, they use their personalities to shape a form of snake-oil salesmanship, hammering viewers into adopting their points of view. Director Ross McElwee has been doing it longer than any of them, most memorably in 1986's loping romantic chronicle Sherman's March, but his relaxed, ingratiating style is infinitely more democratic, like a dialogue with an old friend. McElwee shares his observations and pursues his subjects with gentle curiosity and humor, but he never imposes; instead, he simply encourages people to take a small journey with him.
A Southern intellectual now transplanted to New England with his wife and young son, McElwee goes back to his North Carolina roots in Bright Leaves, a lovable account of his family's history in the tobacco trade. After returning from the Civil War, his great-grandfather became a pioneer in the Durham tobacco industry, but his fortunes were diminished in legendary legal battles with the Duke clan, which steamrollered his business and left him penniless. For McElwee, the family legacy is doubly cursed: Not only was he denied a wealthy estate (and the prospect of the prestigious McElwee University instead of Duke), but his family's product contributed to a lethal addiction. While visiting a movie-crazed second cousin, McElwee is invigorated upon discovering an unheralded 1950 Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal melodrama called Bright Leaf that parallels his great-grandfather's story.
As always in a McElwee film, Bright Leaves starts out as an investigation, but without any set destination or predetermined course, it spends more time heading down the tributaries than staying on the river. On the smoking front, he meets with a lot of ambivalence from the locals, which makes sense considering that they owe their livelihood to something that harms other people. (As one Tobacco Festival beauty queen puts it, "You might as well die of something that's gonna help out the economy.") But outside the main inquiry, McElwee continually surprises with sneaky bits of observation about love, family, and the "narcotic" sensation of moviemaking, when the camera reveals more than the eye can see. Under his watch, the possibilities of a documentary seem to expand by the minute, incorporating not only journalistic truths, but also personal insights and philosophy, unique regional textures, and unexposed pockets of humanity.