Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Joe Show paints a glowingly American portrait of a self-made Arizona icon. Joe Arpaio is the most famous Sheriff in the country because he so uniquely crafts his own public image, whether that be through staged news stories or over-the-top, headline-worthy arrests. The man is divisive and split heavily across partisan lines, so it’s fitting that the conservative public figure (not politician, mind you, as Joe himself consistently points out) resides in a conservatively-minded place like Maricopa County, Arizona. He’s gained headlines over the years for countless, “shocking” actions, like forcing the inmates in Tent City to wear pink or creating the first (once again, self-proclaimed) female chain gang. Arpaio is a perfect example of a man that the media elevated to godly levels, so what more could a documentary on such a divine subject tell us?
Apparently a lot more, as Randy Murray’s documentary examines the inner workings and unavoidable corruption behind the sheriff and his county’s actions over the past twenty years while he’s been in power. Arpaio’s support over the years at the polls has slowly dwindled, but when he was in his prime he was a man with swagger and unrivaled conviction. Even his naysayers could not deny the confidence with which he has resided over the county, since he assumed a position that most other sheriffs would not take to heart as Arpaio did. He cracked down on drugs and fought for persecution of illegal immigrants, even if that meant violating certain rights under the jurisdiction of the law. One example showcases the county’s misuse of power in Mesa to scare a city leader that disagreed with Arpaio, while another centers on the war that escalated between his county and the Phoenix New Times.
That one in particular focuses on, what the film claims, the largest issued subpeona in American history, with millions of IP addresses being requested to further exemplify the county’s reach in power. Arpaio increasingly becomes belittled and persecuted as the documentary progresses, with the beginning setting up a calm before the attacking storm rains on Arpaio’s tent-filled parade. The film casts a light on his personal life and examines the titular man through a variety of lenses: as a family man, a politician, a media-hound, a lawbreaker, and a stick-to-his-guns leader. Arpaio has millions of supporters around the nation, ranging from a woman in Arizona who does the classic “I’m not a racist, but…[insert racist opinion]” to gun-toting Ted Nugent. For every person that seems to defend him, another chimes in to comment on his relentlessly aggressive police force that abuses power and commits racist actions.
The Joe Show grows into an indictment of the Arizona sheriff and should satisfy opponents of the man while leaving supporters a bit cold. The attempt at examining Arpaio through many lenses creates an uneven, far-reaching portrait of a highly complex man, one with a rich personal history and a fascinating political narrative. I fall on the side that doesn’t support Arpaio, mostly for the reasons that are emphasized in the film’s second half. The recklessness and abandonment of civil rights in multiple cases by the county sheriff’s office leads to a bad taste in many voters’ mouths. But Joe Arpaio is the man, the myth, and the legend: his image is on every television screen every week because he wants to communicate as emphatically as possible that he is the World’s Toughest Sheriff. Randy Murray’s documentary is invasive, biting, and ambitious, even if that amounts to an uneven but entertaining character study.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)