‘Influence’: Film Review

This glossy, bustling documentary ambitiously tackles the late Tim Bell's unscrupulous political PR career, but suffers from information overload.

Richard Poplak, Diana Neille
Tim Bell, Phumzile van Damme, Nigel Oakes, Marianne Thamm, F.W. de Klerk, Paul Bell

1 hour 46 minutes

When Tim Bell died in London last summer, the media response was largely, somewhat sheepishly, polite: It was hard not to envision the ruthless political spin doctor still massaging his legacy from beyond the grave. “Irrepressible” was the first adjective chosen in the New York Times obituary. “He had far too few scruples about who he would represent,” tweeted journalist Robert Peston, “but he was the best company, always honest with me, enormous fun.” These were among several dedications to portray the former head of disgraced PR powerhouse Bell Pottinger — a man who offered his services to the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, and met his professional downfall by masking South African governmental corruption with race-baiting fake news — as a kind of incorrigible rogue, as if his amoral taste for profoundly bad company amounted to mere rakish bravado.

This is not a trap, thankfully, that “Influence” falls into, though it’s been made with Bell’s admittedly charismatic participation. Sprawlingly ambitious within a tight format, Diana Neille and Richard Poplak’s documentary aims for a thorough post-mortem into everything that went wrong — strategically, financially, ethically — in his 50-year career in advertising and public relations, but doesn’t stop there. Spidering outwards to investigate the ramifications of Bell’s style of political spin in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iraq, with a further leap across to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and its role in against-odds victories for Brexit and Donald Trump, “Influence” is so heavily stuffed it’s practically leaking information at the seams.

At under two hours, that approach makes for a busy, newsy watch, but viewers arriving with little advance knowledge of the headline cases unpacked here may find themselves adrift in its globe-turning tangle of facts and untruths alike. There’s a series’ worth of material here, though other films have already examined certain aspects in this crazy-quilt of corruption in more illuminating detail. If the Cambridge Analytica insights here feel scant, that’s because “The Great Hack” already had that beat covered. The state capture of the South African government by the infamous Gupta brothers is a more central concern of Neille and Poplak’s film, but even that subject gets more expansive (albeit less polished) treatment in Rehad Desai’s recent IDFA premiere “How to Steal a Country.”

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This documentary’s unique selling proposition, then, is its consolidation of such crises under Bell’s extended sphere of, well, influence. After cutting his teeth as a high-flying adman for Saatchi & Saatchi, he brought a spirit of dispassionate manipulation to political consultancy, helping Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party to a seismic election victory via cruelly clever “Labour’s not working” sloganeering. By effectively gaming matters of grave socioeconomic consequence, the film implies, Bell’s methods gave rise to the cavalier irresponsibility of the current fake news era. It’s an intriguing thesis to which the film, understandably distracted as it is by a mountain of Bell Pottinger misdeeds, never quite knuckles down. That’s in part because Bell, in interviews shot not long before his death, remains a glib, slippery customer to the last: quick with quotably provocative one-liners (“I may do things that are amoral, but they’re not immoral”; “I don’t understand how anyone can be left-wing”) while skating shy of genuinely candid revelations.

For outside insight, the filmmakers turn to Nigel Oakes, a founder of Strategic Communication Laboratories, the behavioral research company that had Cambridge Analytica as its subsidiary: his rueful, somewhat academic commentary on the machinations of the political consulting industry feels drafted in from a different, somewhat more arch film. “Influence” is most engrossing when it shifts into more straightforward reportage, even if its zig-zagging interludes on Bell Pottinger’s work for Chile’s far-right UDI party, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and the Pentagon — the latter involving a $500 million propaganda campaign in Iraq — confuse rather more than they clarify, summarized as they are in quick, restless strokes.

This secondary business combines to cramp “Influence’s” account of Bell Pottinger’s dealings in South Africa, though it’s peopled with the film’s most dynamic and illustrious talking heads. They include riotous left-wing investigative journalist Marianne Thamm, former South African president F.W. de Klerk — who enlisted Bell’s help in his losing campaign against Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in the country’s first democratic election in 1994 — and current opposition politician Phumzile van Damme, a fiercely determined firebrand who claims to have been instrumental in bringing about Bell Pottinger’s 2017 demise, though the film does a sketchy job of showing how.

The interviewees’ contributions are impassioned and enlivening, though those unacquainted with recent South African history will be stumped by some missing pieces. In particular, the timeline from the hopeful triumph of Mandela’s presidency to the abject corruption of the Jacob Zuma era is gauzily drawn. Meanwhile, the Gupta family — the Indian-born clan whose business interests in South Africa gradually extended to undue government influence and state capture, enabled by a Bell Pottinger campaign that cast critics of the Guptas and Zuma as proponents of the invented buzz phrase “white monopoly capital” — hover in the background of the whole discussion without ever been identified or evaluated in much detail.

Aided by the fleet, nippy cutting of editor Ryan Mullins, Neille and Poplak thus wind up juggling an array of fast-switching subjects and priorities with pacy verve that doesn’t permit close scrutiny — ironically, the kind of flashy presentation that Bell himself might have cooked up to ward off harder questions. “Influence” is diverting, aggravating, even suitably damning in its portrait of a high-end huckster brought down to size only after he’d wrought years of damage in multiple countries. But as it leaves audiences with homework to do — a surfeit of unanswered questions, some to be chased in other docs and books, others still hanging in the air, and some doubtless taken to Bell’s grave — it can’t quite pin him down.

'Influence': Film Review

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Jan. 17, 2020. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 106 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — South Africa-Canada) A StoryScope, Eye Steel Film presentation. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Producers: Bob Moore, Neil Brandt. Executive producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross, Thandi Davids.

Crew: Directors, writers: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille. Camera: Glauco Bermudez, Mark Ó Fearghaíl. Editor: Ryan Mullins. Music: Florencia Di Concilio.

With: Tim Bell, Phumzile van Damme, Nigel Oakes, Marianne Thamm, F.W. de Klerk, Paul Bell

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