Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reel to Real: Oscar's Docs

Every year at the Oscars, people concentrate primarily on the Best Picture and Acting categories. But I always like focusing on the Best Documentary Feature section because the people who make them – good and bad pictures alike – have something more at stake than the box office results. This is often why their speeches are either the most moving (or the most proselytizing). Of the five nominated films this year, I’ve only seen three of them.

It’s often been said that you are what you eat, but after seeing Robert Kenner’s incendiary documentary Food Inc. — which examines how the fast food industry radically transformed food production in North America into a stomach-churning enterprise — you just might want to redefine those terms. While Food Inc. is thankfully not alarmist in tone, the facts it uncovers are nevertheless alarming. Using as his guides author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal) and UC Berkeley School of Journalism Professor Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Delight), Kenner examines how the mass-produced food we now consume is not only lacking in proper nutrients; it may also contain potentially harmful bacteria.

The story begins with McDonalds, who set the template for cheap assembly-line food production, then shows how American farms have now become equally uniform — and at the horrible price of creating unhealthy working conditions for both workers and livestock. We may end up spending less for the food, but we pay dearly for it with increasing cases of diabetes, obesity and E. coli outbreaks. It’s unfortunate, though, that because many of the corporate industrial heads like Monsanto refused to be interviewed for the film, Food Inc. ends up lacking a larger dimension than its agit-prop intent. (Thankfully, due to the co-operation of Walmart, they come across far more ecologically minded than usually assumed.) Like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc. lays out its argument clearly, but it’s only one side of the story. To be a truly great documentary, Food Inc. needs a few other conflicting morsels of thought to chew on.

On the other hand, The Cove, a documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, has nothing going for it but its agit-prop intentions. It clobbers the audience so intensely that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s aesthetic you’ll be found guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. To quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists (just add melodrama and stir), The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses nakedly visceral techniques to outrage its viewers.

Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks), but due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the methods of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the team organize their battle plan like a commando team. And the footage they get is as horrifying as you can imagine. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, it seems crudely manipulative to use that footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters. (I somehow doubt that footage of the group massacring electric eels would have the same impact on the movie audience.)

As well as directing the film, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society. So The Cove has an ecological agenda that it proudly wears on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this the movie traffics in the bad faith that Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is powerful and effective and it outrages and disgusts. But it also gets the audience cheering when the bad guys are outted. The one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers not only encourages you to think, the picture’s subject – the ethics of political activism – stands in sharp contrast to what passes for activism today. When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he wasn’t just staging guerrilla theatre (as were Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies), he set out to show how American foreign policy towards Southeast Asia and Vietnam was built on a series of lies. Ellsberg had originally been part of what became the strategy behind the Vietnam War, as both an analyst for the Defense Department and a marine, who first held that if the country went communist, it would be part of a domino theory that would ultimately plunge the region into Stalinist totalitarianism. While it turned out that the country eventually did plunge into Stalinist oppression after the Americans left in 1975, with more than one million Vietnamese fleeing by boat (half of whom, ironically, would land in the U.S.), Ellsberg’s change of heart towards the war was justified. He spoke out because a series of Presidents, from Truman to Nixon, had cooked the facts to support the need for U.S. involvement. (His first day working for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was the same day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident when North Vietnamese ships were believed to have fired torpedoes at U.S. boats. Although the attack was known to be false, President Johnson decided to use this episode to expand the war.) The Pentagon Papers, which were released to The New York Times and other publications, were essentially the secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg went public – risking prison and career – with these documents on the principle that supporting fabrications and brutal dictatorships in order to fight communism was immoral.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (the phrase Henry Kissinger used to describe Ellsberg) is told largely from Daniel Ellsberg’s point of view, along with supporting interviews with the late Howard Zinn and self-damning comments from Richard Nixon’s famous secret tapes, but the film-makers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have also fashioned another crusade. Besides being a compelling historical saga, it is also a personal story of how a man of conscience was motivated to act on the principle of positive rebellion and how those actions changed him from the man that he once was. It’s a little bracing to recall a time when mainstream journalists were after more than just the careerist desire to be hip and consumer friendly. No doubt that careers got made doing groundbreaking stories like The Pentagon Papers, but the risks were also more dangerous. (The Pentagon Papers inspired Nixon to set up his secret government and led to his downfall with Watergate.) Of course, it would be too easy and too simple today to equate Vietnam with the war in Iraq and how pack journalism (like cliques in high school) prefers to go with the flow, but The Most Dangerous Man in America gives one pause over what was gained by Ellsberg’s actions and what’s been lost since.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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