Review: ‘The Shock Doctrine’

'The Shock Doctrine'

Pic looks eminently sober, polished and persuasive.

A handy cinematic summary of radical-left pundit Naomi Klein’s bestseller of the same name, polemical docu “The Shock Doctrine” attempts to connect the dots between shock therapy and torture, Milton Friedman’s economic theories and catastrophic recent events. Judged against the many other recent docus that also critique the machinations of modern capitalism, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ “Doctrine” looks eminently sober, polished and persuasive. Stauncher critics, however, on both the left and right will have the same beefs with the film they did with the book. Limited release and airings on upscale TV are sure to follow.

Something of a poster girl for the antiglobalization movement, Canuck journalist Naomi Klein has built a formidable following for her lively, accessible, detail-rich books, particularly the antibrand tome “No Logo” (2000) and her latest, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” on which this film is closely based. Klein appears oncamera here (although not as frequentlyas some might expect), mostly giving lectures to packed halls of worshipful students, one group of which gives her a standing ovation at pic’s end.

To summarize brutally, both book and film postulate a connection between psychological techniques such as shock therapy developed in the 1950s to “brainwash” subjects, more extreme forms of torture (used now by the American military), Friedman and the Chicago school of economics’ free-market-boosting philosophy, and the way in which repressive regimes since the 1970s have sought to “shock” and coerce whole countries into perpetuating pro-privatization, anticommunitarian social orders with the backing of the CIA, the U.S. military and multinational corporations. This, in essence, is the Shock Doctrine.

Using a mix of well-researched archive footage and animation, co-helmers Winterbottom and Whitecross (who together co-directed Berlinale Silver Bear winner “The Road to Guantanamo”) work through case studies of how this doctrine was put into practice over the past 40 years, starting with Pinochet’s Chile. Pic traces explicit lines between Friedman’s neoliberal disciples in that country, the denationalization of its industries, the Nixon administration’s support of Pinochet and the murder of thousands of Chilean citizens. Parallels are drawn with Iraq and Afghanistan today, as well as what happened in Blighty after the Falklands War and in Russia under Yeltsin.

Niftily integrated blend of voiceover narration (spoken by Brit thesp Kieran O’Brien) and visuals is fluent and mesmerizing enough to sound persuasive, as well as offering a freshman-level refresher course on recent history, albeit with an unabashedly left-wing slant.

However, there’s a certain wooliness about Klein and Co.’s argument here, which rests more than it ought on a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Listen really closely and the link between the shock tactics (let alone “shock and awe” tactics) exercised by governments and armies, and actual shock therapy as practiced on victims like Janine Huard (interviewed here by Klein) by psychological experimenter Ewan Cameron in the 1950s, seems based on nothing much more than metaphor. Similarly, the use of Friedman as the whipping boy for so many of the world’s ills necessitates a vast oversimplification of what happened in, for instance, Russia in 1996. Still, compared with the usual comicbook level of discourse in so many antiglobalization docus, “The Shock Doctrine” looks as rigorous as John Kenneth Galbraith’s prose.

Pic was presented in Berlin as a work in progress, and the version shown lacked end credits.

The Shock Doctrine



A Channel 4, More4 presentation of a Revolution Films, Renegade Pictures production. (International sales: E1 Films Int.l, Toronto.) Produced by Andrew Eaton, Alex Cooke, Avi Lewis. Executive producers, Alan Hayling, Hamish Mykura. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross. Written by Winterbottom, based on a book by Naomi Klein.


Camera (color/B&W, HD), Ronald Plante, Rich Ball; editors, Winterbottom, Whitecross; sound designer, Joakim Sundstrom. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 9, 2009. Running time: 85 MIN.


Naomi Klein, Janine Huard.
Narrator: Kieran O'Brien.

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