Because Penny Lane’s documentary Nuts! is partially animated, the most obvious point of comparison would be other “cartoon docs,” like Waltz With Bashir or Chicago 10. But Nuts!’s structure and tone actually fall halfway between a visitors’ center welcome video and a quirky public radio segment. To tell the strange story of one of the most successful snake-oil salesmen of the early 20th century, Lane’s film at times adopts the voice of the pitchman, positioning quack doctor and media magnate John R. Brinkley as a misunderstood genius finally getting his due. But Lane, like any great storyteller, springs surprises after luring her audience in. Nuts! keeps spinning one remarkable anecdote after another, like a well-read raconteur who holds a dinner party rapt with one good, “Hey, did you hear about this guy who…?”
Lane’s subject is this guy who made a fortune in the 1920s performing operations on impotent and infertile men, in whose scrotums he’d implant chunks of goat testicle. For a time, the small-town Kansas clinic where Brinkley operated was flooded with patients, all allowed to select their own goats. The procedure was so popular that Buster Keaton even made a joke about it in one of his movies. When the American Medical Association and various other governing and regulatory bodies began moving to shut Brinkley down, he rallied the citizenry to his cause by running for public office in Kansas and founding his own media outlets—including a high-powered radio station on the Texas-Mexico border. By the time he died in 1942, the doctor (or, more accurately, “doctor”) had almost incidentally reinvented the radio business.
Nuts! combines those odd bits of biographical detail with stories taken directly from Brinkley’s authorized biography. Most of what’s in the latter is either exaggerated or outright fabricated, but for a while at least, Lane makes the bold choice to present it all as part of the historical record. Through a combination of old audio recordings, newsreels, period headlines, and carefully edited modern-day talking-head interviews, Nuts! paints a picture of a man who fought against the narrow-minded medical establishment and pushed to keep the government out of the private decisions made between doctors and patients.
When she gets to the part of Brinkley’s story where he’s involved in a nasty lawsuit with crusading physician Morris Fishbein, Lane finally shows him for what he was: a con artist so persuasive that even as he was hurting people, they assumed it was their fault. Because so many claimed to have been healed by Brinkley, the ones who were unaffected—or who suffered life-threatening infections—bought into the lie that they were just too weak to be saved.
Lane, who previously made the artfully assembled all-archival-footage documentary Our Nixon, gets a little too cutesy with Nuts!’s style. With the exception of the interviews (which are scant) and the old audio and video clips, the bulk of the film relies on voice actors and an assortment of different animation teams to illustrate reenactments. Both the art style and the animation lean toward the crude or outright ugly, and the extensive recreation of scenes both real and imagined is often a poor substitute for actual photographs, film, and recordings of Brinkley.
At the same time, Lane’s approach evokes a kind of “old, weird America” mythmaking that pays off in the end, when the movie gets down to the business of debunking. As Lane moves on to the fuller story of Brinkley’s life and legacy, Nuts! subtly shifts the meaning of its title. Ultimately, this isn’t a film about goat balls at all, but the willingness of millions to believe that some slick-talking demagogue knows more about what’s good for them and their families than someone with actual qualifications. Given all that’s happened in the world since Nuts! debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, this documentary has gone from being an amusing novelty to an urgent warning.