Few outright revelations surface in “American Empire,” Patrea Patrick’s film about the dire effects of unchecked corporate power — politically, economically and ecologically — on our increasingly commodified planet. But while it covers enough topics for several documentaries, this far-ranging critique displays a rare cohesiveness: Clear and concise, with insightful, impassioned interviewees and well-chosen epithets from statesmen past and present, it cogently analyzes looming catastrophes, with wistful stabs at possible solutions. Less compelling than “Inside Job,” “Empire” should nevertheless stimulate controversy on cable and conversation in educational venues after its Dec. 14 limited release.
The docu begins by deconstructing the Federal Reserve — a cartel, not a government agency, according to one historian, devised by six bankers who met clandestinely in 1910 to draft supposedly regulatory legislation that established a private central bank to puppeteer the nation’s economy. Patrick includes quotes from presidents Jefferson and Jackson decrying the banking industry, as well as a characteristically blunt realpolitik tidbit (“who controls money controls the world”) from Henry Kissinger.
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According to Patrick’s experts, the Reserve exclusively services corporations and the rich, and promotes a systematic “suicide economy,” an “act of collective madness” (to quote the interviewee who gives the docu its subtitle) that sacrifices future sustainability for present-day profit. A parade of economists and historians riff on the perniciousness of the Federal Reserve, alongside a C-SPAN excerpt of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s pitiful attempts to explain the Fed’s role in the 2008 meltdown. Finely textured graphics are deployed throughout: Closeups of dollar bills and handwritten historical manuscripts form a backdrop to talking-head commentaries and the director’s voiceover narration, while glass-sided skyscrapers stand in for cold, unfeeling banks and mega-corporations.
Patrick’s multi-stranded discourse covers much of the same ground as earlier, single-focus docus: the corruption of the Federal Reserve, as documented in “The Money Masters” and other capitalism-centric exposes; the genetically altered grain that gives corporations control of the food chain and creates dependency on toxic pesticides and artificial fertilizers, as addressed in “Food, Inc.”; and the overuse and contamination of a limited water supply, as examined in “Last Call at the Oasis.” This strand in particular gives rise to lyrical shots of waterfalls, rivers and oceans, pristine and polluted.
Finally, like “The Whole World Was Watching” and countless other Occu-docs, “American Empire” samples the increasingly violent suppression of groundswell protest. Succinctly observed and roundly denounced are world organizations like the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank for lending money to countries to build infrastructures that solely benefit the rich.