I was on a short business trip recently and had a chance to view three new movies about real conspiracies that affect us all. This prompted me to go back and re-watch some documentaries from the recent past. Talk about dark night of the soul! Here are my brief reviews in no particular order…
I was aware of the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests but I had no idea how extensive the cover-up had/has been. This movie is almost pitch-perfect as it depicts the true story of reporters following leads ever deeper into a black hole of institutionalized criminality.
The Big Short
This is a great film in all respects. The protagonists are quirky and imperfect, but each has a moral compass and limits on what he will do to make a buck. The basic premise is that everyone from the Fed Chairman on down to the home loan sharks in Miami could not or would not see the reality that was right in front of them. The rogues gallery of financial malefactors is both comical and repellent (see next). The main characters all confront the truth in different ways. I was struck by how sad this film is in spite of the heroes’ success.
This documentary from 2010 is the logical compliment to the Big Short. The best parts are when they catch actual high-placed financiers and government officials telling lies on camera (amazing really!). The end of the film documents something I’ve felt since that time… In terms of effect on real people, the crimes were/are monstrous, and yet only a handful of the actual criminals have been punished! Blame for that outcome lies squarely with President Obama, who hired many of the same players for his administration rather than prosecute them. I still can’t get my head around it. We may never recover!
Arch criminal or whistleblowing hero there is no doubt that Edward Snowden changed everything. In light of what has happened since released NSA secrets have mostly supported his whistleblower status. Watch it and make up your own mind.
United States of Secrets
This PBS Frontline Series from 2014 is the logical companion to CitizenFour. Bulk Data Collection is now the norm, the FISA Court is nothing but a rubber-stamp and the Fourth Amendment is nowhere to be seen when it comes to electronic communication. I also recommend reading The Shadow Factory by James Bamford, where it becomes clear that with a little intelligence sharing between agencies and good police work we might have disrupted the 911 plot. Instead we let fear run away with us and gave our government free rein and an unlimited budget to spy on us. The dust-up over iPhone encryption is just the latest chapter.
Merchants of Doubt
Also from 2014, this documentary reveals the techniques used to manipulate us by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt. Hosted by a magician who is a self-described “honest liar”, the film shows how real lies are told and re-told on a massive scale. I was surprised that most of the techniques used today were all worked out by the Tobacco Industry decades ago! The art of telling a little lie to sell a big lie using deception, obfuscation & misdirection. The successful feint of big tobacco to get us focused on flame-retardant upholstery rather than the cigarette that actually caused the fire was a genius move. On the hopeful side, several past and current heroes are profiled including Stanton Glantz and James Hansen.
Taxi to the Dark Side
I’m embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten most of the events covered by this 2007 documentary of our acts of brutality at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The “Taxi” of the title belonged to an innocent Afghani man who was picked up by the US and died a few days later during interrogation. The basic point is that these atrocities where not the result of “a few bad apples” but rather a normalized fact accepted by the chain of command. See it! I can’t do it justice in words. The interviews with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are especially chilling.
The Fog of War
I was eligible for the draft near the end of the Vietnam War. (I “lost” the lottery.) I remember hearing Robert McNamara on TV explaining our intricate plans to “win” the war and prevent the dominos from falling. His regret and contrition are obvious in the film, but what is more important are his observations about the limits of power and intellect. Regrettably the lessons he had to teach were lost on the Bush Administration and a new generation has been forced to give up their lives in political wars.