More than just a run of the mill political documentary, tonight’s REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM has been called the definitive discourse with Noam Chomsky - a man widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive - on what he believes is the defining characteristic of our time. Unexpectedly, that characteristic is the deliberate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few, a subject common to many Western countries and one many of us in New Zealand are frustrated by on a very regular basis.
In what can feel like a 75-minute teach-in by Chomsky at times, the M.I.T. linguistics professor who has been a leading leftist political analyst, critic and writer for six decades talks about the death of the American dream in particular, and how that came about. It’s not all doom, gloom and free falling polemic however, and I think Michael Berkowitz summed it up well when he called the documentary “a clear-eyed, easily accessible outline of how and why American idealism has been sabotaged”.
Through interviews filmed over a long four years, Chomsky unravels the principles that have brought the American people to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality. He traces a half a century of policies designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority, and it makes for sometimes grim watching. All of this is filtered through his own experience too, looking back on his own life of activism and political participation.
Despite his pedigree, watching Chomsky on screen is insanely easy, and it’s getting to be second nature of late as it feels like he has been the subject of so many fascinating documentaries. These include MANUFACTURING CONSENT: NOAM CHOMSKY AND THE MEDIA, which erupted onto the screen way back in 1993 and definitely woke more than a few minds up when I was at university. There is also Michel Gondry’s animated discourse, IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?, which I reviewed for Rialto Channel last year and after getting my head around it, enjoyed immensely. The latter is definitely directed towards making Chomsky more deeply human, and at times slightly more likeable, despite its art house nature.
But back to tonight’s REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM, the subject matter at hand. During the film the famed intellectual is observed citing minds as diverse and respected as Aristotle, Adam Smith and James Madison as he melds history, philosophy and ideology into a sobering vision of a society in a rapidly accelerating decline. It’s amazing that despite the depressing and frustrating nature of what he is describing, he never raises his voice. “There’s nothing surprising about this,” he says in an effortlessly gentle and measured tone, even when describing what he sees as a 40-year trend of government bent to the will of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else. “That’s what happens when you put power in the hands of a narrow sector.” To put it mildly!
Now 87, Chomsky really does seem to be “at the height of his intellectual powers” according to the New York Times, and I agree. Ever mindful of the impact of his theories he even tries to end the discourse on a positive note. He says, “there’s a lot that can be done if people organise, struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past…” but I get the feeling even he doesn’t quite believe that any more. Is all hope lost? It depends on who you talk to, but let’s just say I’m pretty glad not to be in America right now.
Indiewire called tonight’s film REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM “a much-needed punch in America's gut", and that it most definitely is. Not just for America either in my humble opinion: look outside your window and see if our own current government is playing the same games in your own, still pristine backyard.
REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM premieres on Rialto Channel Thursday 21 July at 8.30pm