Josh Gilbert's smoothly produced documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong should leave even Nancy Reagan aghast at the unfair trials of comedian Tommy Chong. As half of Cheech and Chong (with Cheech Marin), Chong became a countercultural icon in stand-up performances, films, and outspoken interviews that revolved around pot use. But Gilbert shows us another side of Chong: the benign family man who went to prison to protect his devoted wife and son.
After Chong's career was past its prime, his son Paris convinced him to lend his celebrity to a new family business, Chong Glass, that would produce glass pipes and bongs. The implements—which could, of course, be used for marijuana consumption—could be legally sold in all but a few states, but Chong's worn-down employees succumbed to an eight-month long entrapment effort and sold some bongs to an out-of-state "customer." Any reasonable person will find the details of this police operation ridiculous, especially when, in 2003, it culminates in an overblown, early-morning raid of Chong's house.
Though the raid uncovered a one-pound personal stash of marijuana, the authorities were apparently more interested in nabbing their man for his pipe sales (as Paris notes, "They wanted to make it look like a criminal enterprise") and securing attendant headlines. Journalist Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) tells Gilbert, "He's a symbolic target, and it's amazing how much time and energy and money went into going after him."
In asking why, Gilbert delves into the culture of former attorney general John Ashcroft and the political ascendance of Mary Beth Buchanan, who went, in less than three years, from Assistant United States Attorney in the Western District of Pennsylvania to United States Attorney (appointed by Bush) to Director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Buchanan scored the first promotion just after 9/11 and the second one after spearheading the Taskforce on Drug Paraphernalia, a.k.a. "Operation Pipe Dreams."
Gilbert employs news footage, film clips, performance footage, and extensive interviews (subjects include Marin, Jay Leno, Peter Coyote, George Thorogood, and Bill Maher) to tell Chong's life story. Gilbert, who befriended Chong and enjoys complete access, paints a portrait of an easy-going, happy, creative soul whose career and politics become ironically envigorated by his martyrdom.
Chong remains philosophical as his show trial approaches (one of his lawyers notes, "It's a totally unfair system. I feel badly for anyone under federal indictment"), then his nine-month sentence in federal prison. Chong emerges to explain that doing the perp walk changes a man forever, though his actions prove that the man still can't get him down.