Left-leaning documentaries have become so commonplace these days, it takes a little something extra to stick out from the pack. Some movies pivot around the filmmakers' specific personality (a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock); other directors (like Errol Morris) use a flashy, more cinematic style to draw the eye. In The Shock Doctrine, directors Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom go back to documentary basics: they frame their story of modern manipulation in a broad, well-researched historical context, relying heavily on period footage and expansive analysis to explain the patterns that have reappeared, over and over again, throughout modern history.
The film is based on the book by Naomi Klein, which proposes the thesis that over and over, governments around the world (including here in the United States) have engaged in "the systematic raiding of the public's fear in the aftermath of a disaster." The lines are drawn between shock therapy and torture and "economic torture," between military coups and privatization of war, and, most significantly, between the economic theories of Dr. Milton Friedman and his "Chicago boys" and financial collapses the world over.
The fast-moving doc is packed with information; directors Whitecross and Winterbottom (who previously collaborated on The Road to Guantanamo) go back to the American-supported coups in Chile and Argentina, telling the shocking stories of those revolutions, before moving into the 1980s, in which "unabashed Friedmanites" Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan altered the economic layouts of their countries. In lecture footage, Klein takes on the simplistic history of the fall of the Iron Curtain (she calls conventional wisdom a "fairy tale"), specifically the shifting ground in Russia, which experienced "all shock, no therapy." (On my notepad, from around this point in the movie: "Good Lord, in these international crises, we're like always on the wrong side.")
Of course, the more immediate and impassioned sections are the closing ones, dealing with "the shock of 9/11" ("a new economy built on fear," intones the narrator) and Iraq, "the most privatized war in U.S. history." Much of this information has been out for some time, in various forms, but it's still stunning (particularly the startling graphics illustrating the shift in Iraq's contractor-to-soldier ratio during the Bush administration). The picture's scope is admirable, and in its closing passages, the simultaneous tracking of torture, economics, and militarism begin to make more sense, even if--in this highly compressed format--some of the connections come across as a bit tenuous.
The film's only serious issue is that it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It is based on Klein's book, and she is frequently seen lecturing on salient points and sitting on the receiving end of interviews for the picture. But it's narrated by some unidentified Brit. Klein is a brilliant, thoughtful political scientist--and she's terrific on camera. Why not put her more front and center?
That complaint aside, The Shock Doctrine is a skillful, illuminating cinematic position paper, a well-made documentary that slams more information and anger into 82 minutes than most networks convey in a full 24-hour news cycle. And it's not just a stern, worrisome warning; the ending holds out some hope. "We are becoming shock-resistant," Klein declares. I hope she's right.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.