If you tried to fill the gaping holes in logic that mar the historical narrative presented in The Shock Doctrine, co-directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s second collaboration after their effectively damning docudrama Road to Guantanamo, you’d almost certainly have enough material to make a trilogy of films. The Shock Doctrine is based on Naomi Klein’s controversial book of the same name, in which the author presents a radical and fairly reductive vision of how “disaster capitalism” almost singlehandedly created the current global recession. Since Whitecross and Winterbottom’s film is nothing more ambitious than a Cliffs Notes articulation of Klein’s economic theories, they don’t challenge or even acknowledge the fact that Klein’s ideas have been widely discredited by numerous articulate, knowledgeable, and well-regarded critics, including business journalists Fred Kaplan and Robert Cole.
Worse still, Whitecross and Winterbottom’s presentation of Klein’s self-described “alternate history” of Western economics is way too fast-paced and un-nuanced to be effective. The Shock Doctrine’s filmmakers make it seem as if Klein has selectively taken points of data and formed a pattern that only makes sense if you’re willing to ignore all the other contributing factors that don’t conform to that pattern. It’s like the documentary version of a Magic Eye painting: If you don’t relax your critical faculties long enough, you won’t be able to get the picture Klein is describing.
Klein’s theory is basically facile: The deregulation of companies and the increased privatization of socialized services has almost always been made possible by “shock tactics” that repress the affected countries’ populace. Politicians, in other words, are knowingly exploiting the people they’re supposed to serve in order to nefariously aid private businesses. This theory is one Klein claims originated with Nobel Laureate and economic theorist Milton Freedman, a man whose theories were adopted by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Freedman supposed that if politicians created a period of national crisis within their borders, they would have the opportunity to open the countries’ markets and give Big Business a bigger boost.
Pinochet’s infamous use of torture to repress dissidents was, according to The Shock Doctrine, just the first test of Freedman’s theories on a real-life populace. According to Kieran O’Brien, the film’s narrator, “Nixon had [also] supported these brutal market policies in South America.” What exactly that means—Nixon supported torture? Deregulation? In what countries? And how did he support them?—is hard to parse, especially when that line is matter-of-factly read after O’Brien pouts that, “In the ’70s, the only countries putting these ideas [i.e. Freedman’s ideas, presumably] into practice were military dictatorships.” While I’m sure that Whitecross and Winterbottom and Klein aren’t calling Nixon’s regime a “military dictatorship” by proxy, as it’s presented in The Shock Doctrine, that’s how it sounds.
It doesn’t take a MENSA-level IQ to see the flaws in the film’s presentation of the way that Freedman’s theories affected everything from Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of the phone company to George W. Bush’s post-9/11 strategy of attacking Iraq to steal oil. Whitecross and Winterbottom suggest that Freedman’s influence was passed on to Thatcher by her advisor Friedrich von Hayek, who was also a mentor to Freedman. Instead of providing a concrete causal connection linking Freedman’s influence with Thatcher’s irresponsible expansion of the English business markets, Whitecross and Winterbottom deliver a purely speculative conspiracy theory.
Whitecross and Winterbottom also try and fail to establish that in both England and America, Reagan and Thatcher’s policies were the ones that most increased the inequality of wealth in their respective countries. O’Brien says that in pre-Thatcher England, the average CEO earned 10 times the amount as the average worker; that ratio changed drastically in 2005, to 100 times more than the average worker. Likewise, by 2005, American CEOs were earning 400 times the amount that the average worker was. This implies that the administrations of Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Major, and Tony Blair all either did nothing to stop the adverse effect of Freedman’s suggested policies or actively helped those policies to take effect.
Whitecross and Winterbottom don’t explicitly address what any of these interim leaders did that might imply they were adhering to Freedman’s theory. And as a result, their contribution to the already polarizing discourse on the current global economic crisis is no more profound than the kind peddled by conservative pundit provocateurs like Glenn Beck and Bill Maher. The Shock Doctrine lives up to its name and in the worst ways possible.
Zeitgeist Films isn't the only ones to blame for their DVD's bad haloing and rough combing, as Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom already made a point of making their film look ugly by featuring poorly mastered news footage that hasn't been properly de-interlaced and is marred by shadows. But at least the film's stereo soundtrack is fairly well-balanced, as you can hear during the ugly animated scenes of dramatized torture. In these scenes, non-diegetic music is layered well with the sounds of victims' racing heartbeats and the sounds of their screaming.
The Shock Doctrine does a poor job of preaching to the choir and winds up looking paranoid and more than a little ridiculous.