A FilmExposed Film Review
Dirs: Christopher Martin & John Pilger, 2007, UK/Australia, 94mins
John Pilger, co-director, writer, and presenter of this, his first major film for cinema exhibition, is a formidable stalwart of investigatory TV journalism. Revered for his unique documentaries on human rights abuses from Cambodia (Year Zero (1979)) to East Timor (Death of a Nation (1994)), he has now turned his attention to that most unimpeachable of superpowers, the United States of America.
The War On Democracy is an investigation into US-backed subversions of democratically elected governments of Latin American countries. Pilger travels through Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile, interviewing people who were tortured by the forces that staged coups there with the support of the CIA.
Pilger’s documentary is likely to earn comparisons with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) for its use of a rhetoric more propagandist than objective. And while Pilger is tackling a topic of the utmost contemporary relevance – that of the world’s greatest economic and cultural power extending its domination via political machinations – his engagement with the material tends to enervate his cause. Initially appearing nonpartisan by questioning Hugo Chávez (pictured) about his government’s failure to eradicate extreme poverty in Venezuela despite being the only leader of an oil-rich nation to have exploited its resources for the democratic benefit of its people, he soon resorts to a stampede of statistics that has the effect of undermining the potency of his condemnation of American foreign policy. Expected to be taken at face value, these numerical ‘facts’ preach only to the converted.
Ironically, Pilger’s method of debate takes on the very characteristics of the unilateralism of gung-ho American patriots, and will doubtlessly encourage them to hunker down even more resolutely in the self-righteous belief in their own moral superiority. The interview with Duane Clarridge, former head of CIA operations in Latin America, is a case in point. Pilger’s attack on the USA’s tacit complicity in the use of torture during coups supported by the CIA yields the response: “Like it or lump it!”. Clarridge is adamant that his country has the right to take whatever action necessary to ‘protect itself’. And so it’s infuriating that Pilger fails to counterattack such fascistic ideology with the reciprocal theory that, if the USA gives itself carte blanche in the interests of ‘national security’, any other ‘God fearing, democratic country’ would in turn share that entitlement: such as violently subverting the USA’s own political system should it be deemed a threat.
Furthermore (and suggesting that the documentary was designed/destined for television and not cinema), Pilger insists on speaking directly to camera. This mode of presentation accentuates the feeling that his argument is founded on subjective leanings rather than empirical evidence, edging it towards the didactic. Which, truth be told, is a terrible shame, because with The War On Democracy Pilger is tackling an issue that has no intention of abating, for the allure of the American Dream – that of ‘capitalist contentment’ – affects us all far more than we care to admit.