Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Manufacturing Consent : Noam Chomsky and the Media



Canada 1992 : Peter WINTONICK & Mark ACHBAR : 165(-167) mins

(Two sections with intermission. Part 1 : Thought Control in Democratic Societies [95 mins]. Part 2 : Activating Dissent [72 mins])

In Copenhagen with a couple of hours to kill before dinner, suffering from a cold, and a hangover, on a damp and dark day in December, I headed for the Film Institute to catch what I thought was going to be an 85-minute documentary on Noam Chomsky. 95 minutes later, the caption came up announcing the end of Part 1. Intermission, then the second half. Looking at my watch, I realised that, as restaurants in Copenhagen stop serving at 10, it was a choice between feeding my brain and feeding my stomach. After a very brief tussle between body parts with conscience also making its presence felt on cinemas behalf – the stomach prevailed.

Id seen enough of Manufacturing Consent to know that it wasn’t going to get a great deal better in the second half not that the first half was especially poor. It was just that I was tired of the dichotomy between the strength of Chomskys ideas which are fascinating and urgent in whatever medium they’re expressed (I have a split 7 single he did with Bad Religion to prove that point) and the often asinine weakness of their presentation, courtesy of Canadian directors Wintonick and Achbar.

The idea of editing together many of Chomskys appearances on worldwide TV and radio over 25 years is an excellent one, and the film-makers must be applauded for the great range of clips they’ve accumulated. But its very frustrating that whenever Chomsky is questioned or taken on, the opposition is shown in very brief clips especially since these moments, featuring the likes of Tom Wolfe and William F Buckley, are among the most entertaining in the whole film.

And why on earth did they Wintonick and Achbar feel it necessary to improve Chomskys delivery with their array of cack-handed tricks and gimmicks. Whenever anybody says anything especially important, KEY PHRASES are flashed up on screen in block capitals, and they stay there for a few seconds to ensure that they’ve SUNK IN. This isn’t the only instance of the directors doing the opposite of what is Chomskys main message here, namely the importance of everyone thinking for themselves.

Seldom does Chomsky get to speak more than a couple of sentences, for instance before we cut to howlingly prosaic stock-footage or stills to show us exactly what he’s talking about, just in case we couldnt work it out for ourselves. The style of the movie is a great shame, because its content is often dynamite the East Timor section is powerful, sobering stuff, especially the to-camera footage recorded by Australian reporter Greg Shackleton the day before he was killed by the invading Indonesian army. But such riveting sequences sit very awkwardly the numerous larkish live-action improvisations, most memorably the illustration of how one newspaper bowdlerised anothers editorial on Timor. This is represented by surgeons filleting out column inches on a mock operating-table and, as in often the case, the directors themselves appear unbilled.

While Wintonick isn’t quite a camera-hogging Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore figure, by the end of the first part of Manufacturing Consent, the audience may well be rather too familiar with his bulky frame and geeky haircut. The Michael Moore comparison is especially useful with regards to Manufacturing Consent, as the film shares much ground with Moores Bowling For Columbine. The latters razzle-dazzle approach is a million miles from Chomskys brand of forensic analysis, but Moores film feels much less like a case of preaching to the converted how many non-Chomskyites are going to sit in an arthouse for three hours watching a movie called Manufacturing Consent? Or even, in my case, an hour and a half?

23rd December, 2003
(seen [part one only] 18th December : Cinemateket, Danish Film Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark)

by Neil Young