A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
“Requiem for the American Dream,” a film by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, might be subtitled “Professor Chomsky Explains It All for you.” As Errol Morris did with Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War,” the directors here point their cameras in close-up at Noam Chomsky for a feature-length disquisition that’s interspersed with snazzy graphics and illustrative archival footage. In large part because Chomsky is a very good speaker with a wealth of incisive ideas to share, the result is a film that feels less like a lecture than a provocative X-ray of current American political realities.
It couldn’t be more timely, not only because the idea that it is its heart—the impact of the concentration of wealth and power on our politics—has received so much attention of late, but more specifically because its animating concerns are central to the current year’s presidential election. For that reason, its appeal could be more ecumenical than might be assumed. How many Americans currently would agree that the American dream is in big trouble? A good percentage, recent polls suggest. That’s why Chomsky’s leftist analysis, as a starting point for discussion at the very least, could offer as much food for thought for the supporters of Donald J. Trump as it will sustenance for Bernie Sanders’ legions.
The film’s title aptly pinpoints its area of interest. Though Chomsky, a veteran MIT professor who first gained renown for his groundbreaking work in linguistics, comments frequently on global conflicts and America’s involvement therein, we hear almost nothing on those subjects here (which even the film’s admirers might consider a weakness). The upside to this decision, though, is that the discussion has a tight, logical focus that aids its clarity and organization.
In essense, Chomsky asks why America seemed to reach the zenith of its economic and civic vibrancy in the 1950s and ‘60s and then go into a decline that has left few except the top tenth of a percent of Americans truly fulfilled or satisfied. To answer the question, he constructs a narrative that entwines ideas and events, both harkening back to 1776. In that year, British moral philosopher Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations,” in which he argued that merchants and manufacturers dominate government in defense of their own interests regardless of how it affects the rest of society. In examining the government that resulted from the American Revolution, begun in the same year, Chomsky finds that even James Madison, whom he calls as a great a believer in democracy as anyone then, wanted U.S. society controlled by “the wealthy”—property owners might be a better term—which he thought was the most “responsible” element of the citizenry. Thus was launched a never-ending battle between those desiring more democracy from below against those seeking more elite control from above.