The Joe Show
Directed by Randy Murray
Run Time: 100 minutes
Opens October 3rd
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
The Joe Show begins with a moment so surreal, it’s simply hard to believe: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio singing — quite badly — Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This is both a sad joke and an ironic truth about Arpaio’s iron grip on Arizona’s law enforcement.
Arpaio, who called himself “America’s toughest sheriff” so much that it actually came true, is the star of Randy Murray’s fascinatingly frank documentary about how Sheriff Joe, a name that has become shorthand for Arizona’s wacky politics, is the most hated/loved figure in the Southwest. His fans adore him, and his critics call him a cancerous void. He could care less what he is, as long as a news crew is there to film his reaction.
Murray’s film starts by pitching underhanded softballs right over the plate, and Arpaio clobbers them out of the park. Sheriff Joe does his Sinatra song, cooks pasta in his kitchen with his wife, and then as he shuffles around his downtown office, which has a locked closet lined with DVDs and VHS tapes of all his media appearances, which he hordes in his vault of drywall and fluorescent lighting. The beginning of the film is so non-threatening and mundane that it feels like more Arpaio fluff — part of the neverending Sheriff Joe PR machine. But then the knives come out, and The Joe Show eviscerates this bewildering Arizonan figure.
In an early scene, Arpaio parades prisoners around in pink underwear and handcuffs — Maricopa County’s fetish of choice — as way to drum up press for his new “tent city,” a canvas oasis where Arpaio sends low-level offenders for the benefit of the evening news and his own ego. Joe glows in front of the cameras as he bellows and bloviates to a group of time-robbed reporters and the bouquet of foamy microphones they’re offering as virgin sacrifice to that evening’s soundbite. And yes, that’s a handgun-shaped pin on his tie.
His humiliating treatment of prisoners provides a nice jumping-off point to many of his other political stunts: the foolhardy Obama birth certificate investigation, his harassment of the city of Guadalupe, bogus corruption charges against county officials, the arrest of New Times editors … the list never seems to end. Arpaio often speaks for himself, and is brutally honest about his intentions — there’s no such thing as bad press, except no press, or when someone spells Arpaio wrong. His gold-ol’-boy schtick is amended and tweaked by bobbleheaded PR juggernaut Lisa Allen, who seems like a lonely person. Without Joe will she just evaporate into oblivion?
In case it’s not clear, I’m not a fan of Sheriff Joe. I worked for a newspaper that was in his sights for many years. When we didn’t cover what he wanted, he retaliated by shutting the paper out of public events. Then press reports stopped coming. And then public records requests were ignored. Eventually the paper sued him, and won. He appealed, and we won that, too. For many years after, I would see Arpaio at media events and when he saw the logo on the press badge he would snarl and growl. Literally.
A lot of what Arpaio does is harmless cornball politics. Pink underwear and green bologna make for fun headlines, and for the most part the public just shrugs its shoulders. But The Joe Show doesn’t stop there. It pokes and prods deeper into the stuff that makes even Arpaio fans queasy: the violent deaths of inmates at his jails, including Scott Norberg, whose death was covered up amid disappearing evidence; racial profiling of basically anyone that wasn’t as pinkish white as Arpaio; his “culture of corruption,” from dopey henchmen like Paul Chagolla and Dave Hendershott all the way down to deputies and jail guards; and the failure to investigate more than 400 sex crimes. That last one should have lost him his last election, but even raped teens couldn’t stop the Arpaio media blitz.
The film features interviews from some of the most important figures in the Arpaio story — with lots of Arpaio himself and Allen, who does a wicked Jane Fonda impression — including one supporter who says she’s not a racist, but then says that “Mexicans haven’t evolved.” One of the interview highlights comes from interviewer Larry King, who states plainly, “Villains make good guests because they don’t think they’re villains.” The film presents both cases, pro-Arpaio and anti, but it’s hard not to question Arpaio’s police work when the film frames the sheriff as a media-hungry fame-monster who will do anything to be on TV. And that’s not necessarily a description he would disagree with. Although it skews against Arpaio, Joe Show will have its cheering section as its star casts himself as Arizona’s savior from Obama, Mexicans, criminals and “the media.”
Sheriff Joe will go down in Arizona history as an antiquated old fart who was tired of kids on his lawn and Mexicans in his grocery store, but his simplistic view of politics, government and police work will be his ultimate legacy. As much as Joe fancies himself a sheriff, a jailer and the county’s top cop, he’s little more than a movie star with a badge. And The Joe Show is his blockbuster.