Look no further than this summer. The most talked-about movies of the season were not Van Helsing, Spiderman, or other mindless Hollywood action thrillers, as is usually the case. Instead, the movie that buzzed loudest proved to be Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 911, an extended ad hominem attack on the White House’s current occupant. While the highest grossing documentary of all time, though, Moore’s film wasn’t the most important film of the year. Instead, that honor can be divided among the following seven “must see” films as we approach this Election Day. Each stands on its own, and yet collectively also tie together the big questions of our time: corporate power, war and empire, media consolidation, elite ownership of our cultural storytelling process, and election year politics.
Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War
Directed by Robert Greenwald, this 60-minute documentary features interviews with more than 20 experts, including former US Ambassador Joe Wilson, weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and David Albright, anti-terrorism expert Rand Beers, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, former CIA operative Robert Baer, and Nation Washington editor David Corn. What makes this film so remarkable is the almost complete absence of sound-bitten shouting and partisan rhetoric. (See, for example, Chris “Hardball” Matthews or Bill “Shut Up!” O’Reilly.) Instead, in methodical fashion, the film’s talking heads systematically dismantle the Bush administration’s entire series of rationales (some would say “lies”) for waging war in Iraq.
These “talking heads” are not knee-jerk left-wingers flipping the bird at the Establishment. Instead, the interviewees are the Establishment, and their case against the Bush administration is damning. Uncovered doesn’t tell the viewer the whole truth about the Iraq War. But it does chronicle, in a reasoned and authoritative manner, gross abuses of power by the Bush administration, providing a valuable corrective to the fallacious fluff served up nightly by our corporately-owned news media.
Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room is billed as a documentary about Al-Jazeera, the controversial Arab television news outlet that began broadcasting in 1996. But Noujaim, who is half Egyptian and half American, is more interested in trying to pin down one of the most controversial questions of the past year: What is the truth about the Iraq War?
The three characters she tracks in her film all struggle with this dilemma. Al-Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim, an ex-BBC’er, ardent Arab nationalist, former classmate of Osama bin Laden, and big fan of the US Constitution, possesses enough wit, anger, and intensity to drive the film forward. “The US is the most powerful country in the world,” he explains. “You can crush everyone, but don’t ask us to love it, as well.” Then there is Al-Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader, whose cigarette-smoking cynicism and wry humor anchor the film. Highly critical of the Bush administration’s occupation, he also is fond of the US, noting that he plans to send his children to US colleges to “exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.”
Noujaim’s most compelling character is US Lieutenant Josh Rushing, who is in charge of presenting the US case for Iraqi occupation to global media outlets. Young and likeable, Rushing speaks honestly about his experience – “I’ve met so many great Arabs since I’ve been here!” – while thoughtfully fending off critiques of US policy by Hassim and other journalists. After being asked his opinion about Al-Jazeera’s decision to air footage of captured US soldiers killed by the enemy, he movingly details his newfound distaste for war by humanizing Arab civilian casualties. It’s a remarkable moment, in a film full of them.
Super Size Me
This ground-breaking film, already history’s 4th highest grossing documentary, features director Morgan Spurlock literally putting his body on the line, eating nothing but three square McDonald’s meals for one month. Every time a Golden Arches employee asks him if he wants to “super size” his portion, he decides he must agree.
The likeable Spurlock hires three different doctors and a nutritionist to track his deteriorating health, makes his vegan chef girlfriend more than a little worried about their sex life, and chronicles the numerous ways one of the world’s most powerful corporations has seeped its way into our culture and our bodies. It’s one of the most innovative meditations on corporate power and personal choice I’ve seen in years.
Right after the film’s fantastically popular Sundance release, McD’s yanked “super size” portions from its menus. Coincidence? You decide.
Canadian co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, who gave us a filmic version of Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann’s Manufacturing Consent a decade ago, team up with law professor and social activist Joel Bakan to deliver this epic meditation on the “pathological” power of corporations. The documentary’s great genius – and biggest weakness, perhaps – is conflating clinical definitions of individual psychopathology with definitions of “corporate personhood.” While the legal and history lessons are useful, the conclusions are too simplistic.
Alongside the usual heroes (Howard Zinn, Moore, Vandana Shiva, and Chomsky) and predictable foils (Milton Friedman and Peter Drucker), we meet some fresh new voices, including author/activist Susan Linn, and hear from reformed CEOs, including a memorable Ray Anderson of Interface, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, who chides his corporate comrades for being too greedy. For audiences new to the debates surrounding corporate power, this wide-ranging film is an eye-opener.
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
In its few short years of existence, the highly profitable Fox News Network has dramatically debased the already sorry state of US television journalism, beginning with some of the catchiest, most effective, and most misleading slogans – “We Report. You Decide.” – ever to grace US living rooms. Robert Greenwald’s latest film rips the lid off of Fox’s absurd claims to be “fair and balanced” (as if any corporately-owned news network could lay claim to these two ideals with a straight face).
Although the documentary is hardly a nonpartisan look at the work of Rupert’s minions, with comedian/activist Al Franken and other right-wing bashers weighing in, it is remarkably important for anyone who has never seen Fox News in action. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly come off as little more than loud-mouthed and bullying right-wing toadies simply by being themselves on camera. Most of the time, Greenwald is smart enough to get out of the way and let them do the talking.
Orwell Rolls in His Grave
Unlike Greenwald or Moore, director Robert Kane Pappas doesn’t target a particular news channel or public figure. Instead, he goes after Big Picture problems created by Big Media.
The hero of Pappas’ film is former 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis, who founded the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity years ago after growing disillusioned with the sad state of US journalism. Lewis, who broke the Clinton Lincoln Bedroom Scandal, observes that getting press coverage for political malfeasance is a breeze. It’s when there are corporate wrongdoings to be investigated that the Fourth Estate runs the other direction, or simply refuses to show up to press conferences.
Pappas ranges widely here – from the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan to election corruption in 2000 and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq – arguing, somewhat simplistically perhaps, that Orwell’s vision for a mediated future of mind control grows more real by the day.
Hijacking Catastrophe: 911, Fear, and the Selling of American Empire
The Media Education Foundation’s Sut Jhally has directed and produced dozens of films during the past decade. This may be his best. More scholarly than Fahrenheit 911, more passionately argued than Uncovered, more focused than both The Corporation and Orwell Rolls In His Grave, Jhally’s film explores the ways in which Bush administration neoconservatives have leveraged the 911 tragedy to justify their own unilateral empire-building agenda.
While many other independent films have attempted to tell this story, Jhally manages to fit all the pieces together in remarkably convincing fashion, without appeals to Bush-bashing or cheap humor. That said, there is an authentic “Bush as high school cheerleader” photo that is worth the price of admission.
All seven of these films provide a unique and courageous look at a world gone wrong, while offering some direction for feeling our way to a more just, sustainable, and democratic future. See and discuss them, bring them to your local theater or living room, and, of course, get off the couch afterward and become involved in the struggle.