Documentaries about complex subjects have a difficult line to toe — it’s easy to fall to the wayside by being either too dense and lecture-like to sustain visual interest or by glibly flitting past the necessary evidence on the way to making a case.
Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s The Shock Doctrine, based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same name, toes that line admirably but occasionally stumbles on both accounts. At a brisk 78 minutes, it’s surprising the film doesn’t feel more unsubstantial. Unfortunately, it also feels at times like simply a primer for Klein’s book, and indeed, the film falls back often on footage of lectures delivered by Klein at various universities — these segments offer much-needed explication some of the time, but they also offer the distinct feeling that you might as well just be reading the book.
But even as a primer, The Shock Doctrine makes a compelling, skillful argument about what Klein calls “disaster capitalism” — a method of promoting deregulated free market policies during moments of crisis, be it war or natural disaster. Klein claims it was first espoused by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and made its first big splash in the real world with the Pinochet-led and United States-supported coup in Chile in the early 1970s.
The film is at its best when depending on archival footage of these real-world events to illustrate its claims, and during the Chilean coup section, the film relies largely on Patricio Guzmán’s essential The Battle of Chile, which automatically increases the riveting nature of the film. The film goes on to include examinations of Boris Yeltsin’s policies in Russia, Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain and George W. Bush’s in the United States.
Where the film does falter is in its use of a rather tortured metaphor — comparing destabilized countries to recipients of violent shock therapy, which the film has plenty of archival footage to document as well. It certainly gives the premise a more visual hook, but the connection seems tenuous.
The film’s criticism’s of capitalism gone amok of course couldn’t be more timely in America’s current political and cultural climate, and whether or not one can make the leap with Klein et al to an affirmation of “disaster capitalism,” its overarching criticisms of the free market are hard to ignore.
The 2009 film is just now making its way onto DVD from the folks at Kimstim via Zeitgeist Films. The DVD comes devoid of any bonus features.