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The Shock Doctrine -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama Documentary
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BERLIN -- Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' "The Shock Doctrine" is an illustrated movie guide to Naomi Klein's best-selling book that attacks so-called "disaster capitalism." As such, the movie fails to make her case.

Where Klein had a whole book to develop her thesis that famed neoliberal economist Milton Friedman's aggressive free-market theories led to and even promoted political catastrophes and much human suffering, this movie, clearly assembled in haste, throws surprisingly poor archival footage into the mix with a Klein lecture, scant original interviews and a narration from on high that will brook no dissent.

More off-putting than the film's imperious tone is its insistence that virtually all the political sins, economic collapses and war crimes of the past 60 years trace back to the Nobel laureate's teachings. You don't have to believe in a single word of Friedman's theories to think this a considerable exaggeration.

The directors might consider a return to the editing room if not to principal photography. The print that arrived in Berlin lacks end credits and even incorporates a shot of the Obama inauguration last month so clearly work remains to be done. The focus should be on clarifying the essence of Klein's economic and political message and eliminating forays into things such as electro-shock therapy that only confuse those issues.

It's vital that those moviegoers who are not book readers understand what Klein is arguing since her thesis goes to the heart of much of what nearly everyone, other than bonus-baby bankers, is suffering from today in the meltdown of world financial markets.

In a nutshell, Klein argues that Friedman's shock doctrine refers to the practice of seeking out wars and natural disasters and, then, while the locals are too shell-shocked to protest, clearing a route for market deregulation and multinational companies. Today, the doctrine is more refined as its adherents, according to Klein, engineer catastrophes such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Friedman's theories got their first tryout when Pinochet took over in Chile following a military coup. The model continued in Argentina and elsewhere in South America under dictators. The film does allow the late economist, in old interviews, to insist that his laissez-faire capitalism is intended for democracies, not dictatorships.

So the film moves on to Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain where the prime minister used her Falklands War popularity to privatize much of the government and to deregulate much of business.

President Ronald Reagan was simultaneously trying to do the same thing across the Pond, but the film never really pins down a disaster or war he exploited. Could it simply be that his popularity opened the doors to deregulation? Maybe that should be the shock and charm doctrine.

The film gets sidetracked with war-on-terror issues regarding Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It's never clear why Friedman is the responsible party. Why not blame President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney? Klein's theory also extends to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, but the film slides right by this without comment.

The snippets from Klein's lecture, which she delivers at the lair of the beast, the University of Chicago, finds her an engaging personality who makes connections and summarizes events, theories and their consequences well. In other words, all the things this film fails to do. Perhaps more of Klein and less repetitive old clips of FDR or South American atrocities might bring her arguments home better in the final film version.

Production: Revolution Films/Renegade Pictures
Directors-editors: Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross
Based on the book by: Naomi Klein
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Alex Cooke, Avi Lewis
Executive producer: Alan Hayling
Director of photography: Ronald Plante, Rich Ball

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 86 minutes