Review: Through Chong's case, 'a/k/a' examines the drug war
In 2003, the comedian Tommy Chong began serving a nine-month sentence for selling bongs over the Internet. In his movies and stand-up routines with Cheech Marin , Chong gave us the archetypal stoner. So prison time for helping other people get stoned has a robust irony. According to `` a/k/a Tommy Chong," Josh Gilbert's occasionally enlightening new documentary that opens today at the Brattle, Chong's arrest was also a Justice Department conspiracy to punish the comedian's on-screen persona. As someone in the film deduces, the war on marijuana was a war on the '60s and its ethos.
The movie, though, is only sort of about the alleged plot against Chong, mixing highlights from his career and snapshots of his seemingly loving and tranquil family life with dismay over federal law enforcement's misplaced priorities. This isn't a great piece of nonfiction filmmaking, but it has its moments. The access to Chong, for one thing, contributes a serene counterpoint to the minor farce Gilbert makes of the Justice Department, which, when Chong was arrested, was run by Attorney General John Ashcroft . (Hilariously, the feds' plan to nab Chong and his family-run bong business was called ``Operation Nice Dream.")
The film spends time with Chong, who was 66 during filming, in the weeks before he went off to a minimum-security California prison. Gilbert visits him as an inmate and is with him and his wife, Shelby , after his release. And throughout `` a/k/a," Chong remains affable and resigned to his bad luck, leaving the conspiracy weaving to Gilbert and the gaggle of talking heads the director rounds up, including the journalist Eric Schlosser , whose book ``Reefer Madness" offers more focused and cogent dissections of the drug war's punitive excesses.
`` a/k/a" isn't sure what to do with its wealth of access. So, amid its jammin' rock-instrumental score, it tries some of everything. There are interviews with Chong celebrity pals and supporters like George Thorogood, Peter Coyote, and Bill Maher. Indeed, Ashcroft's moralistic approach to the drug war seems out of touch here. And Gilbert shows President Bush making his equation of drugs and terrorism -- stoners and dealers are terrorists by association. For the hell of it, there are man-on-the-street interviews, too, with Californians discussing the bliss of their homemade bongs (the potato is a new one for me).
But the movie does succeed in showing us the graying cult star as a gratuitous drug-war casualty -- though not a complete victim. His arrest was a telling blip in his life, where his reputation had gotten him, belatedly, into trouble. Still, his rebellious and rambunctious days seem behind him. He hasn't forsworn pot (when the government staged its major raid on his Pacific Palisades home, all it turned up was a pound of marijuana), but the years, and maybe his recreational pursuits, have conferred upon him a surprising aura of wisdom.