The Shock Doctrine Dir. Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom

[Renegade Pictures/Revolution Films; 2009]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Road to Guantanamo, The Take, Capitalism: A Love Story

“A state of shock is not just what happens to us when something bad happens; it’s what happens to us when we lose our narrative, when we lose our story, when we become disoriented. What keeps us oriented and alert and out of shock is our history. So, a period of crisis like the one we’re in is a very good time to think about history, to think about continuities, to think about roots. It’s a good time to place ourselves in the longer human story of struggle.”

-Naomi Klein, Loyola University, Chicago, 2009, opening sequence to The Shock Doctrine


Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism explores how the spread of ideology masquerading as economic fact — the kind of unfettered capitalism espoused by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School — has profoundly shaped the last half century. It’s a global tale, starting in Chile and Latin America, then branching out to England, Russia and Eastern Europe, South Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and, of course, the US.

Along the way, Klein argues that Friedman’s policies — deregulation, the elimination of price controls, free trade, and the privatization of all government functions besides roads and defense — cause economic shock by destabilizing economies and dramatically widening the gap between rich and poor. As a result, these policies have always been implemented during times such as war, repression, natural disaster, or transition to a new government, when national psyches are disoriented. Bluntly: hardcore capitalists take advantage of, and even manufacture, disasters and violence to sneak in economic reforms that make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else.

It’s this story that Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom cram into their documentary’s 85 minutes. At least, supposedly. They describe in detail the US-backed military dictatorships in Latin America (the location of the first laboratories for Friedman’s economic policies), the implementation of those same policies in what the film calls “The English Speaking World” (which includes the UK under Thatcher, the US under Nixon and Reagan, and, apparently, the USSR), and the privatized post-9/11 War on Terror.

But the substantial chunk of Klein’s book that doesn’t directly link to the US and Britain is glossed over or simply omitted in the film: post-apartheid South Africa, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the East Asian financial crisis, and post-tsunami South Asian reconstruction. Even the World Bank and the IMF, arguably the world’s most prominent symbols of global capitalism, are ignored. Many of these subjects prove Klein’s thesis better than anything covered in the film, but that’s inconsequential, since the directors never bother to satisfactorily explain Klein’s ideas anyway. Or Friedman’s, for that matter. And while there’s plenty of emphasis on torture, war, and physical suffering (the three detainees featured in the filmmakers’ previous documentary, the excellent The Road to Guantanamo, even make an unnecessary appearance), the film offers little explanation of how that violence links to capitalist reforms. Klein’s reasoned critique of global hyper-capitalism is reduced to a semi-coherent lesson in US and British imperialism.

Sadly, omissions and restructuring are the least of the film’s problems.

While Klein’s book is meticulously researched, what’s even more impressive than her facts is her grasp of narrative. Klein uses language to do what facts alone can’t, slinging metaphors to make the case that both economic and physical shock therapy need to destroy in order to create a blank-slate on which to build their utopias. Ultimately, it’s this link between the economic and the bodily that allows Klein’s work to be so powerful, demonstrating the connection between global economic history and our own personal narratives.

A seven-minute short directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón, and Klein in 2007 to promote the book managed to encapsulate much of this sentiment by, you know, actually taking advantage of the language of cinema. Whitecross and Winterbottom, on the other hand, treat their film as if cinematic flair were trickery that might detract from the seriousness of their barrage of unlinked facts. Instead, they’ve given us an hour and a half of archival footage and an unyielding, monotonous voiceover by Kiernan O’Brien. It’s like the History Channel, without the relief of commercial breaks.

Whitecross and Winterbottom seem unable to distinguish between History and the more personal narrative Klein describes in the film’s opening sequence. While there’s over four decades of the former crammed into the film, they’ve failed to craft it into the latter.

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