Review: 'Jerry Brown: The Disrupter' is a revealing look at the California politician

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Anyone who takes civics seriously and lives in a world of facts cannot help but be dismayed by the mediocrity of much of what passes for contemporary politics — one cannot even say governance, so little are some elected officials interested in it.

And so we turn with a mixture of relief and longing to the latest edition of the biographical series "American Masters," "Jerry Brown: The Disrupter." Premiering last week on PBS, it concerns the California governor (and secretary of state, and attorney general, and mayor of Oakland); whatever you think of his politics, there's no denying his seriousness, dedication and singularity.

"American Masters" has focused typically on cultural and pop cultural figures but is dedicating the current season to "Thought Leaders: A series on innovative American thinkers," including episodes on Bella Abzug, William F. Buckley Jr., Cesar Chavez and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Though, for having famously dated Linda Ronstadt — a pairing that found its way onto the covers of People and Us magazines — Brown might be considered pop-culture-adjacent.)

And Brown, certainly, is a man of many thoughts. The film, directed by Marina Zenovich, finds him, young and old both, consistently honest and honestly consistent, even in his apparent evasions — a person true to an ever-evolving self.

"I'm trying to get you to explain who you are," a frustrated Zenovich (or so I assume) asks him at the top of the film. "How would you describe yourself?"

"There's no kind of 'who' existing in abstraction," Brown responds.


"Just describe yourself."

"No, I can't do that."

Such recalcitrance — or intellectual rigor — aside, Brown makes a fit and fascinating subject. A temperamental outsider, he spent most of his life in the mainstream of politics, from his 1970 election as California secretary of state to the end of his unprecedented and surely unrepeatable fourth term, and second stint, as its governor in 2018. Though all his offices were held in California, where his father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, was governor before him, Jerry Brown was a national figure; he ran for president three times, unsuccessfully and, one might say, poorly — choosing the wrong years to run, more than once getting into the race so late that he didn't appear on some primary ballots. ("It was doomed from the beginning," he said about his 1980 bid, against incumbent Jimmy Carter, "but I didn't understand that. You can have an idea, and you can be clear about it, and certain about it, and be completely wrong.")

Anyone who was around when Brown first became governor, in 1975 at age 36, will be familiar with his well-publicized quirks. He declined to live in the governor's mansion, preferring a spartan apartment across from the capitol that suited the seminarian he had been (and presaged the student of Zen he would become); sold off the governor's executive jet and flew commercial; and refused the usual limousine in favor of a car from the motor pool. "There's something ascetic about him," says his friend, actor-activist Peter Coyote. "He didn't care about any of the accouterments of power; he wanted to do things." Dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" by Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who was no fan, Brown took it as a compliment, connoting vision and a willingness to dream.


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