Most people can agree that human motivations are largely driven by economic necessity and aspiration. So there's a fundamental gap in the way many documentary film-makers often approach history. Instead of looking at how power and influence are carefully created and manipulated, we often get constructed narratives about heroes and villains acting as though they were struck by lightening bolts and lifted up by faceless masses, culminating in the ecstatic state of now.
Michael Winterbottom's (A Mighty Heart, Code 46) and Mat Whitecross's adaptation of Naomi Klein's bestseller "The Shock Doctrine" examines the inspiration and methods of what Klein dubs 'Disaster Capitalism'. The film illustrates several moments in history when free market zealots, guided by the teachings of economist Milton Friedman, seized upon chaos to carry out extreme policy changes. These changes are (in the film-makers' eyes) completely against the interests of the people, but the people, reeling from military coups and natural disasters, were too stunned to defend themselves.
These policy changes started with removing price controls and eradicating labor standards then quickly progressed to privatizing land, utilities and eventually military combat (that last one took Friedman's ideas beyond even his own greatest expectations). Klein and Winterbottom make the case that 1. we should care about this because it's likely the land we live on is more valuable without us on it and natural disasters can happen anywhere and 2. free market solutions succeed only at widening the gap between wealthy and poor while muting the democratic process.The test cases Winterbottom focuses on are Pinochet-era Chile, Thatcher-era Britain, Yeltsin-era Russia and Bush (43)-era United States. Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and tsunami-decimated Indonesia are used as supporting examples since the timelines for the book and the film dictated that these latter two tragedies be covered in far less depth.
As snapshots of culturally-diverse but ideologically-identical political histories, The Shock Doctrine is a bitter treat. Stalwart in its beliefs and visceral in its execution, economic lessons are rarely this thrilling. But because it takes the side of the systemic underdogs, the film struggles to end on a hopeful note. And it's impossible to not see the footage of Russians standing in soup lines and being beaten in broad daylight by mobsters and not be scared to death for the people of Haiti.
It's also gratifying to see a documentary about the muddled lead up to the American invasion of Iraq set in a larger historical context. The news footage of Ford administration-era Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the Soviet Union with even more florid language than he ever used for the post-9/11 "Axis of Evil" produces a sincere hope that he's using his newfound unemployment to write a book. Or at least doing some serious self-reflection.
There were reports last summer that Klein has disavowed the film after clashing with the film-makers on how best to convey her ideas. But Klein's speaking appearances serve as the framework for the film and she personally conducted many of the interviews that appear in the final cut. And according to the official Sundance program, she will join Winterbottom and festival founder Robert Redford for a Q&A after the film's screening at the film festival this week.
The Shock Doctrine is screening January 21-31 at the Sundance Film Festival and will also be launched simultaneously on-demand as part of the new Sundance Selects program.