(Obligatory disclaimer: any political views expressed herein are not necessarily those of anyone other than the writer, who would gladly try to be apolitical except that it's impossible in this particular case)

Naomi Klein is pretty attractive for a polemicist. Also, she’s pissed off about capitalism. Put these two factors together, and you’ve got yourself a movie. Based on her book of the same name, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE is a documentary for those of you who thought Michael Moore’s CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY needed less humor and more focus, plus a well-reasoned alternative (unlike Moore’s nebulous “democracy is the antidote to capitalism,” this movie is clearly on the side of Scandinavian-style semi-socialism).

A fellow writer in the screening room who had read the book says that the film is like the Cliffs Notes version. Nonetheless, the film lets fly so many names and dates that it may need a Cliffs Notes version of itself. This isn’t one of those documentaries that occasionally uses funny cartoons and absurdly dated footage to keep you entertained while informing you. There is old footage, but most of it is the opposite of funny. And there are brief animated drawings...on how to torture people. This, folks, is not a date movie, unless your date is one of those humorless militant activist types.

A demonstration featured in Michael Winterbottom's and Mat Whitecross' THE SHOCK DOCTRINE

We start off with talk of shock therapy derived in the ‘50s (I think – like I said, lotsa names and dates), where the idea is that if you shock someone enough, their mind is wiped clean and you can build them up as people anew. Then there’s also sensory deprivation treatment, which we are told causes loss of critical thinking (really? So how come so many professional critics are introverted shut-ins, huh? HUH?) and kills the ability to daydream; one pundit even says he thinks actual pain is preferable to sensory deprivation.

This then leads into economist Milton Friedman, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, as they develop “economic shock theory” which, as described here, is basically economic libertarianism (as opposed to the Keynes-ian policies of the New Deal). Friedman posits that completely unregulated free markets go hand in hand with individual freedom...and also that in order to install such a system, some great outside crisis and adversary may be required. As Klein puts it: “We’ve been sold fairytale crises.” This is a slightly questionable notion that the film dances around a bit...but we’ll come back to that.

Chile was supposedly the first real test case for Friedman’s theories. Under the Allende government, which featured government regulation of businesses and strong unions, students were brought to the US by the Nixon administration to study Friedman. When an election was held, the CIA did all they could to prevent Allende from winning, but he did anyway; they then proceeded to do what they could to destabilize the country, and on what some people call “the original 9-11” – Sept 11 1973 – General Pinochet seized power in a military coup, with the backing of the U.S. He promptly deregulated the markets, but gave the lie to the notion that such action necessarily goes hand in hand with personal freedom, by becoming a brutal dictator.

From Chile we go to Argentina, where, like Chile, the free markets go hand in hand with economic collapse and repressive dictatorship tactics, and we’re told that Nixon was afraid he’d lose his re-election bid if he became similarly libertarian, so he backed away from going full-Friedman.

The rest of the movie offers history that might be more of interest to those viewers who did not already live through it: Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and ultimately to the War on Terror, which ties back in to the literal shock treatment and sensory deprivation, as used at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, respectively. The general thesis is that crises are taken advantage of to impose total deregulation, and the inevitable outcome is the CEOs get massively richer while the rest of the system collapses. Ergo, the path from 9-11 to the recent U.S. economic collapse.

The thing about making a connection like that is this: when you start with Chile and Argentina, where crises were engineered, then proceed to the Falklands war, the coup attempt on Gorbachev, and 9-11, it seems to me that you are making an implication, whether you admit it or not, that those events were all inside jobs too. The movie never says this, and in a court of law could easily deny that there is any intent to say this, but the mere structure of the film implies it (certainly the Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, were not “inside jobs,” unless you really believe George W. Bush has a hotline to God). And even if they want to come out and say it, fine, let them make their case. But they don’t. Perhaps making the movie much longer would be counterproductive anyway.

My personal bullshit detector only went off once, during a bit about Boris Yeltsin and his suspension of parliament in Russia. We get a clip of then-veep Al Gore talking about how Yeltsin is Russia’s best chance for democracy, and it’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “Hey righties! Just to prove we’re not doctrinaire Democrats, here’s us making fun of global-warming dude AL GORE! Ha ha, screw you!”

What the film doesn’t say, however, is that the alternative to Yeltsin was not someone more democratic and pro-union or whatever; it was hardline authoritarian Communist nutjobs like Zhirinovsky (remember him? Probably not, but believe me, scary dude, like waaay scarier than Putin). So Al Gore was right to back Yeltsin over guys like that.

One thing that’s interesting is how Friedman and his associates are derisively called the Chicago gang...and Yeltsin’s cabinet were apparently derisively called the same thing in Russia because of their free-market beliefs. It’s funny because of course nowadays, it’s the right that refers to “the corrupt Chicago machine” that supposedly gave us Obama. Poor Chicago – used by both sides to insinuate corruption in one’s opponents! And they thought it was bad enough being stereotyped as fat guys always having heart attacks and saying “Da bears!”

The co-directors are Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, who also gave us THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO, and don’t miss an opportunity to bring the three kids from that movie back into this one. Narration is by Kieran O’Brien, who starred in Winterbottom’s art-porn 9 SONGS. And footage comes courtesy of about a dozen other documentaries and news programs – this is kind of a scrapbook approach to moviemaking.

I’d recommend this most to younger audiences who are starting to take an interest in politics, and would be interested in a crash course on the last 30 years or so, at least from one particular perspective. One could argue that the film needs more balance, but do that and you might end up with a five-hour movie. More useful, I think, would be to show this movie in some sort of classroom setting and invite debate afterwards. It doesn’t feel like a red meat flick telling you exactly how you should think (a la Moore or any of the conservative responses to him), but of course Klein does have a well-known point of view.

And is much easier on the eyes than Moore.


THE SHOCK DOCTRINE debuts on-demand January 28th, where it will play for 60 days. Further U.S. distribution plans are pending.

Links to more LYT reviews can be found HERE.


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