The bluntly but appealingly titled Heist: Who Stole the American Dream is nothing short of a full-scale invasion film, and the invaders are scarier and considerably more insidious than any crew of traditionally little green men. The documentary, taken in part from Jeff Faux’s book The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future—and What It Will Take to Win, maps out the conscious, deceptively creeping effort that a small group of men at the top of the country’s largest corporations took to effectively dismantle every provision that President Roosevelt helped initiate following the Great Depression. In short, the film provides a crisp, succinct answer to a question that nags most Americans: What the hell happened?
It’s a classic tale of greed, of losing your bearings in the midst of unchecked opportunity, and the parallels between the Great Depression and the economic catastrophe of 2008 run surprisingly deep. The film insists, perhaps indisputably, that the greatest salvation of the New Deal was its establishment of firm regulations of financial institutions that prevent the proliferation of the kinds of phantom investments that promise high returns on minimal underlying assets. Roosevelt, in other words, drafted laws that were governed by the seemingly radical theory that those in power be held accountable for abusing said power.
Filmmakers Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey devote most of the film’s running time to a number of villains that will be familiar to anyone even passingly acquainted with the last 30 years of American history, but they occasionally offer a casually illuminating detail that testifies to the terrifying preconception of what is literally a cooperate takeover of American government. Many of us, though not nearly enough of us it would seem, know that President Reagan oversaw massive corporate deregulation that paved the way for the Greed Is Good generation as well as the current economic climate. What fewer of us may know, however, is the existence of an instrumental document called the Powell Memorandum, written by an eventual Supreme Court justice, that called for increased corporate lobbying as well as the seizure of influence over all media outlets. The Powell Memorandum, taken with the subsequent Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership, are revealed to be brilliantly prescient playbooks that establish all of the stratagems for free-enterprise gain that currently plague us: the dissolution of employee unions, tax breaks for the top few percent, farming off of labor to other countries, etc. These essays could be subtitled “Corporate Corruption for Dummies.”
Other documentaries have covered this ground before; Heist distinguishes itself by puncturing the appealing liberal myth of the Democrats as rebel soldiers hopelessly trying to win America back from the dark side—a fairy tale that inspired some of the late comedian George Carlin’s most brilliant, scathing routines. Reagan and Dubya are obvious scapegoats for the current economical climate, but Clinton and Obama are revealed to be nearly as accommodating, enabling corporate control while publicly speaking to rights of the common worker.
Dozens of other damning incidents are offered, but Heist remains remarkably balanced and even-toned. This film is meant to incite change, to prove that grass-roots campaigns for Wall Street accountability can have actual influence. Heist is clearly sympathetic to a mode of reform that economists such as Paul Krugman, among others, favor, which stipulates that money must be actively spent in the proper fashions to initiate financial healing. This recovery could begin almost immediately, but it necessitates an overhaul in conventional wisdom that the governing one percent doesn’t deem beneficial. At one point, Heist identifies the United States an oligarchy, not a democracy, and you’d have to be staggeringly naïve to offer much argument to the contrary.