Watching this documentary about the great intellectual Noam Chomsky and his theories on the consolidation of wealth and power is like reading a 73-minute long pamphlet with moving pictures alone in the dark. For those unfamiliar with Chomsky's work, Requiem for the American Dream offers a palatable introduction to how his research in the fields of linguistics and economics shed light on the gross inequalities we have today. If you're already a fan of Chomsky, it's more of a Sermon on the Mount, a chance to renew your fervor at an unfair world.
Co-directors Peter D. Hutchison and Kelly Nyks piece the film together with a series of interviews filmed over four years. (Their previous work includes a 2008 documentary on the campaign trail called Split: A Divided America.) These conversations are strung together as one long monologue, structured around "the 10 principles of consolidation of wealth and power." Chomsky takes us through the formation of banks, how they started off as a level-headed service industry and then became the speculative gambling houses they are today, for example. He delivers terrifically bad news like this with the stony assurance of a lullaby as the images on screen shuffle between archival footage, graphs and hypnotic abstractions, such as old-fashioned televisions stacked on top of each other with fuzzy images of Chomsky as a young man. "Requiem," simply put, means "death song," which is what Chomsky thinks of our withered hopes of getting rich, and the film has a chilling score to match that mood. As a visual representation of ideas, Requiem for the American Dream works well, and Chomsky's somewhat dry delivery moves along at an entertaining enough clip.
One can't help but think of Errol Morris' films of a similar ilk, most notably his Oscar winning The Fog of War (2003), composed entirely of interviews with Robert McNamara. Both Morris' films and Requiem use frequent close-ups on the subject's face. In the case of The Fog of War, it works like an interrogation of a complicated man and the dubious decisions he's made, but I wonder what's the point of so many close-ups on Chomsky, our benevolent, elderly teacher. He's not on trial here, and so the urgency feels a bit misplaced.
In high school, I devoured writers like Chomsky and Howard Zinn who so eloquently confirmed my suspicion that the world was a crooked and unfair place for marginalized people. Back then, it felt good to get mad. Then I started living in the real world, and that abstract injustice became a depressing reality of perpetual wars, crushing student loans and low paying jobs. If my Facebook feed is any indication, I think plenty of my peers continue to be invigorated by our bonkers political process. They are the ideal audience for this film. For me, rehashing these ideas tends to fill me with resignation and dull dread, and on that note, I can't with any degree of honesty say that I enjoyed watching the movie.
If you're wondering if Requiem for the American Dream speaks at all to our current political climate, it does, but only indirectly. Chomsky doesn't mention the ongoing presidential election or any of the divisive candidates milling about this cycle. But the film says a thing or two about how a dissatisfied electorate might find their allegiances swayed toward a bellicose, racist leader—so, make of that what you will.
If you're looking for intellectual entertainment combined with political outrage, Requiem for the American Dream fulfills the contract.
Requiem for the American Dream opens at the Roxy Fri., April 1.