In “The End of America,” award-winning documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg lend a cinematic forum to Cassandra-like author Naomi Wolf, touring countrywide to alert Americans about the erosion of their civil liberties. Citing Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Wolf outlines 10 steps necessary to turn an open, democratic society into a closed, repressive one, examining measures taken by the Bush administration that hew to the totalitarian blueprint. Daringly, IndiePix will release the docu through SnagFilms’ free video streaming on Oct. 21, only days after its Hamptons fest debut, and subsequently in various venues and formats.
As in “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and “The Devil Came on Horseback,” Stern and Sundberg hitch their wagon to someone else’s crusade for justice. But whereas in the two previous docus the filmmakers expanded the scope of the struggle, here they are content to simply illustrate Wolf’s lecture; the urgency of the message trumps any niceties of presentation (Wolf’s warning about imminent disaster in the political sphere is similar to “An Inconvenient Truth’s” warning about the geosphere).
Bulk of the docu is structured around Wolf’s address to a New York audience as she outlines her 10-point thesis. Despite her hair-tossing, slightly patronizing star turn (she exhibits an unfortunate pedagogic tendency to ask questions solely to elicit prescribed answers), Wolf’s impassioned arguments prove totally compelling, and the filmmakers’ accompanying illustrations transport her comparisons from the abstract to the historic. Archival footage of Germany in the early ’30s depicts a free society where no one could have dreamed that “it could happen here,” while present-day clips feature the sinister-looking triumvirate of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signing similarly draconian measures into law on the back of 9/11.
Talking heads from the CIA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and retired justices of the Army Criminal Court decry the administration’s abuse of power, while excerpts from various news reports stress the immediacy and impact of enacted policies (running the gamut from torture to kangaroo tribunals).
In this unfolding historical context of the president’s newfound “right” to declare anyone in the world an enemy and indefinitely force detention without trial, the deployment of American troops from Iraq back to the U.S. for crowd control, and the proposed expansion of Blackwater into key American border areas, take on a nightmarish quality.
Though the precision of some of Wolf’s comparisons is arguable, and one could position America further or nearer down the road to perdition, pic’s vision of a Congress and a people driven to abrogate their rights resonates strongly. Stern and Sundberg’s imagery depends less on absolute congruencies between 20th-century dictatorships and present-day America (though these abound), and more on similarly overnight transitions from the unthinkable to the everyday. Current images of cuffed and hooded Iraqi detainees, eerily mirroring historical footage of rounded-up “enemies” of fascist states, make chillingly clear that the undermining of democracy can proceed without juntas or fanfare.