Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy is a six-hour documentary from PBS purporting to inform the viewer about economics: what have been the different ideologies about managing the market, how did we get where we are now, and what is the nature of the modern world economy? It's certainly an interesting topic and one that's worthy of a thorough, in-depth, objective exploration. However, Commanding Heights has a fatal flaw, which can be concisely expressed in three words: conflict of interest.
How would you feel about watching a documentary on cancer, funded by cigarette manufacturers? Do you think that alternative medicine and preventive care would get a truly fair shake on a program funded by large pharmaceutical companies? Well, how about a documentary on economics funded by large global corporations?
Yes, Commanding Heights may be a PBS production, but it's far from independent or unbiased. The first thing that's shown are advertisements from the corporate sponsors of the program, including Federal Express and British Petroleum. In fact, a little digging turns up that one of the original large sponsors of the series was Enron... an uncomfortable connection that PBS downplayed after that company's scandalous demise. In other words, the money behind the program comes from sources that have a deeply vested interest in promoting a very particular, pro-big-business, pro-deregulation economic agenda. And it shows: Commanding Heights is largely a propaganda piece for global mega-corporations.
The bias evident in the program is a real shame, because the topic is an interesting and substantial one, and the documentary's makers have done a good job on the whole of presenting the material in an engaging and well-organized fashion. Each of the three two-hour episodes presents a frustrating duality: I found it informative on areas of modern world history and politics that I knew little about, but the evident bias, not just in the interpretation of the facts but also in the choice of what facts to present (and what to leave out), saps the documentary of its credibility.
Episode One, "The Battle of Ideas," takes a look at two major competing ideas about the world economy: on one hand, the "free market," favored by economic theorist Hayek, and on the other hand, the "planned economy," favored by Keynes. The episode tracks how the ideological climate shifted from one to the other over the course of a century, with corresponding effects on governmental policies. The summary of the respective positions of these two influential thinkers is the most worthwhile part of the episode; its evaluation of the merits of these positions is the least worthwhile. To begin with, the program consistently blurs the distinction between economic and political systems. Socialism, capitalism, and communism are economic systems; democracy, totalitarianism, and fascism are political systems. Certainly it's true that the "person in the street" usually conflates the two... but I'd expect more clarity of thought in a documentary specifically exploring the field of the world economy. The bias here is clear: capitalism is represented as the only true economic system of a free society, and "free market" capitalism the only acceptable flavor of capitalism. Anything resembling socialism is consistently denigrated, without any actual analysis of its merits versus free market capitalism.
In the second episode, "The Agony of Reform," Commanding Heights takes a look at countries all over the world as they shift from centralized, planned economies to less-regulated free markets. While "The Battle of Ideas" focused largely on Britain and the United States, this episode takes viewers to Chile, Bolivia, India, China, Poland, and the former Soviet Union, examining the economic problems and attempted solutions in each case. On the positive side, the program does achieve a truly global focus. However, the thesis of the program seems to be "market economies do it better", while glossing over exactly what "it" is. What are the limitations of the free market? What are the assumptions behind it? What are the consequences of a completely free market on society and the environment? These are issues that are not faced... in fact, these are issues that are not even raised.
The third episode, titled "The New Rules of the Game," addresses the nature of "globalization" and the world economy. Foremost in my mind was whether Commanding Heights would finally face some of the tough questions about the world economy; for instance, does globalization offer the world anything other than a form of economic and cultural imperialism from countries like the U.S.? The third episode does raise some important considerations, such as the fact that the "success" of a free-market program like NAFTA can be measured not just in the increase in trade, but in its effect on the quality of life of workers and its impact on labor rights and the environment. While Commanding Heights does a better job in this last episode at avoiding blatantly obvious bias, it still fundamentally lacks a critical perspective on the material it is presenting, and consistently avoids any material that would offer evidence against its free-market position.
How to sum up Commanding Heights? The series was interesting, but looking back, it leaves me with more questions than answers. The program purports to tackle "the inside story of our new global economy," but it never presents solid explanations as to why or how various elements of the economy work, or how different approaches to managing the market affect the economy. Even without the fatal flaw of the big-business bias in the program, this would be a serious fault. With the bias of the program, it's deadly: it's all too clear that going into greater depth would require a more critical point of view, one that would not be blindly favorable to the global corporations funding the program. And so we get breadth, but no depth; style, but little substance.
Commanding Heights faces the problem of all documentaries that incorporate previously-existing footage, an unevenness of video quality, but handles it reasonably well. The portions of the series that were filmed specifically for the series are of excellent quality: clean, free of noise, and with strong colors. The first episode in particular contains a great deal of older footage, some of it going as far back as around 1910, and not surprisingly, it's in much poorer condition. The second and third episodes are more consistent since the material is newer, though the interviews and news reports from the 1970s and 1980s is of course not as clear or sharp as the material filmed specifically for the show. On the whole, the video quality is quite good, with the different source materials nicely woven into the whole.
The episodes are presented in widescreen at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio; they're not anamorphically enhanced.
The Dolby 2.0 track handles the modest demands of the episodes well. The narrator's voice is always clear and distinct, and the overall feel of the various places that the series visits is captured fairly well in the incidental sounds of the track. A few of the interview clips sounded a bit muffled at times, but this generally only occurred with older archival material; the newly-recorded material was always clear.
The packaging is attractive, with the three discs in individual keepcases inside a light cardboard slipcase, but the actual special features are nothing to write home about. The list of special features on the case makes a big deal about the material available on the PBS website, which I don't consider significant at all. What's actually on the DVD will be available to viewers as long as they own the set; what's on the web site requires an internet connection, and will be available only so long as the site owners are inclined to maintain it.
The supplemental materials actually included on the discs are weak, consisting only of brief text sections. For text, the best place to go is a book (and in this case, the obvious place is the original book that inspired the series); a DVD is best suited for audio-visual supplements such as filmed interviews, which are lacking in this set. The text pieces included on the DVD, which I might add are presented in a rather eye-unfriendly color and font, include short excerpts from the Commanding Heights book, and transcripts of question and answer sessions among Daniel Yergin, the author of the book, and producers William Cran and Greg Barker. There's also a list of the interview subjects included in the series, which I admit puzzles me as to why it was included: there's no information provided on these people and no link to their actual interview in the episode.
I wish I could have kinder words to say about Commanding Heights; it's a documentary that I wanted to like. But the hard truth is that while it's an attractive, glossy, well-produced program, it's full of misrepresentations, missing information, and outright propaganda, representing the interests of the big businesses funding the series rather than the interests of presenting a balanced and objective view of a topic. If, like me, you are ready to think extremely critically about what you see and hear, then you may find this program interesting, though its bias puts it out of the running for a repeat viewing. I would absolutely not recommend this show for anyone below college-age (or, frankly, in the first years of college); it's far too much a propaganda piece to be acceptable viewing for anyone who is likely to simply accept what they see as "the truth." Ironically, the DVD touts itself as a teaching tool, when I would consider it absolutely inappropriate for use as in a classroom.