“Requiem for the American Dream” offers a crisp encapsulation of Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on where corporate political influence and expanding economic equality are taking our nation as a whole — in a handbasket or otherwise. Needless to say, the diagnosis is not good, if not quite terminal yet, either. This illustrative lecture of sorts, smartly packaged by the “Split: A Divided America” trio of Peter Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, would be a very useful addition to public discourse at any time. But it’s particularly so during this election year, and the pic has indeed been quietly accessing a significant viewership in variably limited bookings around the country since late January. Expect continued play expanding to non-commercial educational outlets and overseas, as campaign season plows onward.
The renowned linguist and political critic-activist has appeared and even been the subject of numerous documentaries over the last 20-plus years, starting with 1993’s “Manufacturing Consent.” Though there’s a brief digressive interlude here presenting an overview of his career (and there are clips incorporated from his TV and other appearances over the decades), “Requiem” assumes Chomsky requires no introduction. The opening text informs that the primary materials to follow were shot over four years’ course, and that they constitute the now 87-year-old’s “final long-form interviews.” You’d hardly guess the process was so stretched out (or that Chomsky isn’t up for more), however, as the address he delivers in closeup against a blank background seems as though it might have been shot continuously in a day.
It’s hardly free-ranging in content, either, as he outlines the “Ten Principals of Concentration of Wealth and Power” that have created rapidly growing income inequality and myriad related problems in the U.S. today. Each new section is heralded by imagery based on “currency collage art” by Mark Wagner, with the Uncle Sam of greenbacks animated, cutout style.
Informed by Chomsky’s deep understanding of history (and illustrated by appropriate archival materials), these chapters build a damning case against entrenched forces among the nation’s economic elite as having deliberately sowed a “vicious cycle” that increases wealth at the top while shrinking opportunity for everyone else in American society. While such efforts have been present from the time of the Founding Fathers (and farther afield, well into antiquity), he argues that there’s been a concentrated, well-orchestrated if largely stealth pushback in their direction since the successful social-justice movements of the 1960s greatly alarmed keepers of the status quo.
His 10 principles include reducing broad democratic participation in governance; shifting the nation’s economic base from manufacture (which employs/benefits all) to the finance games of stock market and credit; shifting the tax burden to relieve the well-off; deregulation; election engineering (crowned by Citizens United, the masterstroke in empowering corporate influence on and within government); eroding the power of organized labor; promoting the mass distraction of frivolous consumerism; and “marginalizing the population” by splitting them into impotent factions angry at each other (rather than those at the top), a tactic spectacularly evident in our current presidential race. All these concepts are rendered relatable by vivid examples the subject cites, and/or clips from myriad archival sources (old newsreels, advertising, government documents, et al.) woven in as illustration.
Those inclined to dismiss Chomsky as a wild-eyed radical leftist will be frustrated (not that they’ll actually see this film, of course) by his dry, calm demeanor in laying out these arguments with cogency and ample factual evidence. It’s also notable that he does not exempt Presidents Obama, Clinton and even Carter from sharp criticism — nor neglect to credit Nixon with some significant progressive moves (such as establishing the Environmental Protection Agency). The systemic warping trends he cites cross party lines, even if its most avid proponents have generally come from the conservative end of the political spectrum.
After summing up a vision of an increasingly “ugly” U.S. society and an imploding global economy that is “headed toward massive destruction,” Chomsky offers a note of hope. Free speech, he says, remains a shining American value, and as organized citizen activism has turned the tide before, so it can again. Still, “Requiem” makes clear how difficult that fight, and how mighty the opposition, would be. Only his (and the film’s) brisk, informative, rancor-free tenor prevents this docu-screed from leaving a wrist-slittingly downbeat impression.
That palatability — not to mention the extraordinary amount of intel cleanly packed into a very short running time — owes much to the filmmakers’ inventiveness, which keeps the visual additions to Chomsky’s talking-head input endlessly diverse and interesting without ever distracting from that pointed, chiding voice. In addition to Alan Canant’s superb editing, a significant plus is the almost continuous backing of Malcolm Francis’ score, with its modified Philip Glass-like sense of rhythmic, repetitious motifs constantly pushing forward.