The kind of pseudo-investigative documentary in which handpicked pundit and Queensryche singer Geoff Tate gets more face time than Noam Chomsky, Programming the Nation? fails to stick to its stated subject or to coherently fit it into well-trod America-as-propaganda-mill boilerplate. First-time director Jeff Warrick, a former advertising account exec, wobbles from the start in mixing 9/11 news audio with shots of Ground Zero reconstruction, presumably to later tie it in to his ostensible history of subliminal messaging in America. No luck there, and though Warrick’s background compels him to keep the snazzy graphics, sliced-and-diced interviews, and clips of everything from The X-Files to a Muzak lampoon by comic Neil Innes rolling for nearly two hours, he evades and fails to ask the right questions as often as he informs—and then usually with far less punch than his interviewees have managed for decades. (When media critic Mark Crispin Miller or Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman appear for a few soundbites, you long for them to usurp the production.)
Programming the Nation? isn’t even on solid ground when exploring the start of subliminal communication in the 1950s. Relying on Wilson Bryan Key, author of several ‘70s bestsellers on the practice, as a primary authority, it retells the familiar basics of “the Vicary experiment” in which split-second flashes of suggestive text projected during a showing of Picnic boosted concession sales. But when Warrick reveals Vicary’s later admission that his study was a scam, he merely clucks at Key’s populariztion of it rather than confront him. A montage of sexual images in liquor and cigarette print ads offers circumstantial evidence against the ad industry’s stony insistence that it doesn’t practice hidden messaging, but the doc is on much sillier ground going over “backwards masking” issues dating back to the Beatles and a Judas Priest trial involving the suicide of a teen fan (cue, for no compelling reason other than his status as the filmmaker’s fave, Tate).
Warrick finally admits that he and some of his talking heads are expanding the definition of “subliminal” (something that’s obvious when he cites entirely perceptible cuts in Hitchcock films, or product placement in movies), but he loses all of his remaining credibility when flimsily suggesting a Bush ad featuring a split-second flash of the word “RATS” decided the 2000 election, or in giving a government communications project that “disturbs the ionosphere” such little screen time that its effects remain unfathomable. A wandering commitment to the topic and shortage of hard evidence about the scale of subliminal communication undermines the film’s integrity, and makes this buffet of paranoia easy to dismiss for lack of relevance.