"The American Ruling Class" is that unusual animal, the political documentary with high-wattage star power -- but only if your idea of stars is Hodding Carter, Vartan Gregorian and William Howard Taft IV. Although public TV or cable airings of the BBC co-venture would seem a natural, theatrical looks less than a long shot.

A film about empowerment that leaves you unsure whether or not to slit your wrists, “The American Ruling Class” is that unusual animal, the political documentary with high-wattage star power — but only if your idea of stars is Hodding Carter, Vartan Gregorian and William Howard Taft IV. Although public TV or cable airings of the BBC co-venture would seem a natural, theatrical looks less than a long shot.

Lewis Lapham, that eloquent apologist for progressive politics and editor of Harper’s magazine (which is never mentioned in the film), wrote this movie with one chief goal in mind: To establish the nature of America’s ruling class.

That this country has a ruling class is never in doubt — not only does Lapham state its existence at the beginning of the film, but his two fictional characters, Jack Bellamy (Caton Burwell) and Mike Vanzetti (Paul Cantagallo) are Yale grads. Have they ever heard of Skull and Bones? How about Carlisle Group?

Still, Lapham’s characters ask the question of everyone from Robert Altman to James Baker III, getting everything from frank disclosure to shameless dissembling (particularly from Baker), as they pursue Lapham’s thesis.

Did we say characters? Yes. “The American Ruling Class” is less documentary than hybrid, in which musical numbers (one sung by the beleaguered waiters and waitresses at an International House of Pancakes) enhance the proceedings delightfully. Too delightfully. Not only do the numbers emphasize the stiff-bristled artifice of the rest of the movie, they trivialize the very serious matters Lapham and helmer John Kirby are trying to explore.

Artifice is the downfall of “The American Ruling Class.” Everyone is acting, and no one is an actor except, perhaps, Cantagallo.

Lapham, himself a beneficiary of venerable WASP privilege, has written a literate, witty and provocative script, but his screen persona is smug and patronizing; the various luminaries, many of whose appearances obviously are rooted in the kinship of entitlement, are reading their lines and sound it. The awkwardness of each performance, so to speak, distracts so much from the subject matter that the film become self-defeating.

The ideas are powerful, but “The American Ruling Class” is a movie for people with choices, about a country in which people presumably have fewer and fewer. Only the sequence featuring journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (then working as a waitress for the Harper’s story that would become her book, “Nickled and Dimed”) makes real solid points about the effect of a class system on a supposed democracy.

But even Ehrenreich gets to distance herself from the ruling class. Everywhere in Lapham’s story, people who benefit from being part of the moneyed elite are allowed to explain away their part in the process, with nary a question being asked.

Lapham does nail Baker, former secretary of State and Treasury for the Bush I and Reagan administrations. Leaving Baker’s home state, Lapham intones, “In Texas, a man’s worth is measured by the amount of other people’s happiness he can possess and destroy.” It would be a better movie if, like this, he showed his fangs more often.

The American Ruling Class

Production

A the Press & the Public Project production, in association with BBC and Cactus Three. Produced by Libby Handros, John Kirby. Executive producers, Stanley Buchthal, Caroline Camougis, Paula Silver. Directed by John Kirby. Written by Lewis Lapham.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm), Mark Benjamin; editors, John Kirby, Leah O'Donnell; music, Qasim Naqvi, Lucas Johnson-Yahraus. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (NY, NY Documentary Features), April 26, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Lewis Lapham, Paul Cantagallo, Caton Burwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Cronkite, James Baker III, Bill Bradley, William T. Coleman Jr., Mike Medavoy, Robert Altman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Garbus, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
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