Movie Reviews

Orwell Rolls in His Grave
(Reviewed July 23, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star

An article in the Washington Post recently asked why so many documentaries these days are left-wing. The article came to no firm conclusion, but one answer, it occurred to me, is that leftism makes for better cinema. Most of the paranoia in politics today is on the left, and paranoia is a natural cinematic subject. In fact, from I, Robot to The Manchurian Candidate to The Bourne Supremacy, most of the biggest movies of the summer have it as their theme. Naturally, you would expect documentaries to follow suit. Orwell Rolls in his Grave by Robert Kane Pappas, for example, takes up where Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 leaves off: that is, not only with a range of opinion that runs the gamut from Tim Robbins to Mr Moore himself but also with the latter’s paranoid vision of the Orwellian superstate that the would-be dictator, George W. Bush, and his gang of crypto-Nazi henchmen are attempting to impose upon our beloved country.

You’d think that it wouldn’t take much in the way of self-detachment to see the absurdity of such a comparison. And to Mr Moore’s credit, the slapstick elements of his film reassure us that he himself cannot be taking it very seriously. You have to think that to him, as to most of the fans of his movie, the comparison of our president to an evil dictator is just a bit of routine spin. But Mr Pappas apparently does take it seriously. Both he and his stable of left-wing commentators — there are no dissenting voices here — are absolutely straight-faced in their analogies not only with the fictional 1984 but with Hitler, Stalin and Goebbels too.

Now all of these people are, if not as rich and powerful as Messrs Moore and Robbins, prominent and prosperous with good jobs in the media or think tanks — represented in the movie as being all right-wing — or universities. The film itself is evidence of their ability to make their voices heard and still remain unmolested by the secret police. Nor do they show any obvious anxiety about speaking out. Yet all of them continue to speak as if they were on the run from the authorities and on the point of being arrested without trial, chained to the wall of some dungeon, and taken down to Room 101 with the rats. What is going on here? The answer, I think, is that paranoia inevitably involves a certain amount of self-romanticization. Weaving of this kind of mystique of evil around one’s political enemies is partly motivated by the desire to portray oneself as their persecuted victim, however implausible that may seem to those of a less "progressive" bent.

But it takes a certain nerve, in this case, for the film to place among the articles of its indictment of the president that he used the word "evil" to describe the régime of Saddam Hussein. He goes to war against a man who really did make political dissidents disappear into his torture and execution chambers, and these guys try to make out that he is the evil dictator? Talk about double-think! That, by the way, is just one of the Orwellian terms that pops up annoyingly along with a shot of a dictionary page in which it is defined. Such a use of the dictionary is, I know, one of the clichés of the documentary form these days, but by the time the film has similarly defined "pundit" and "euphemism" we begin to wonder what is the point of treating its audience as children, as if even such limited knowledge as this were unfamiliar.

Such condescension, I think, is part of its radical purposes. In order to emulate Mr Moore in adumbrating the unified field theory of the vast right-wing conspiracy it helps to start as if from no knowledge, the better to reconstruct the world according to the conspiracy-blueprint. All the things you think you know, you don’t know; every appearance masks a hidden reality that the investigator purports to reveal. And Mr Pappas’s conspiracy is even more far-reaching than Mr Moore’s in revealing it. He takes in not only the "stolen" election of 2000, the Bush-Saudi connection, the sinister characters at Fox news and attempts by Michael Powell and the FCC to further Rupert Murdoch’s goal of global domination but even the long-discredited "October Surprise" allegations against the late Ronald Reagan and the campaign of deregulation that it erroneously claims that president was able to initiate as the fruit of his own stolen election.

Actually, deregulation began under Jimmy Carter. But that’s a mere detail.Ultimately, the appeal of movies like this one is not that they make belief in their wild charges compelling but that they invite the viewer to congratulate himself on being smarter than other people for crediting them at all. Not for clever people like us the naVveté of those poor simpletons who suppose that their leaders are decent if flawed human beings doing the best they can for their country. A good example of this attitude comes right at the beginning of Deb Ellis’s and Dennis Mueller’s merely hagiographical and otherwise uninteresting Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (why not?, by the way). The subject, a radical professor and author of a People’s History of the Unites States, says at the outset that "I start from the supposition that the world is topsy turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power."

There speaks the true conspiracy-theorist! In another context such a statement might be evidence of mental derangement, but it is almost normal among intellectuals and clever people like Professor Zinn or Michael Moore — whom we know to be clever because he keeps telling the world how stupid the rest of us are. Such people justify their own status as being among the intellectual élite by continually purporting to uncover the hidden truths that the rest of us are too dumb to see. Nothing, in other words, is as it seems. And those of us who persist in believing that the world is more or less as it appears to be are either fools or part of the conspiracy ourselves. Such an attitude may or may not be smart — I think not — but it sure does cry out for cinematic treatment.