Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum are the Yes Men, a duo of progressive activists who use impersonation and other forms of invisible theater to bring public and media attention to various hot-button domestic and international issues. The Yes Men Are Revolting is the third film to chronicle the exploits of the eponymous pranksters (after The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix the World) in their ongoing effort to shine a light on irresponsible business practices and government indifference around the world. Like Fix the World, this one is co-directed by the Yes Men themselves, so viewers shouldn’t expect an objective portrait of the protagonists’ political agenda and biases. But neither is the documentary a self-aggrandizing paean to their own creativity and moral superiority, as it never shies away from exposing the group’s failures and internal tensions, which provide some of the film’s most thoughtful moments in the form of genuine self-criticism and reflection on the ultimate viability of their methods to change the world for the better.
The film opens with one of their most creative political hijinks, as a group of fellow activists dressed in “survivaballs,” self-sufficient body suits supposedly capable of withstanding any climate, attempt to cross the East River to demonstrate at the United Nations. Though they’re prevented here and elsewhere in the film from doing so by the police, the attempt itself garners media attention, which in turn furthers their goals by initiating a public conversation about global warning. Like the gonzo political comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, their stunts often work even when they fail, since the exposure of their antics as hoaxes nevertheless gets them invited on television to promote their agenda. An even more sublime stunt involves the indigenous activist Gitz Crazyboy, who poses as an official of the U.S. Department of Energy and convinces security analysts and military officials at a Homeland Security conference that the American government is switching over to renewable energy in a program that will be managed solely by Native Americans. The Yes Men then convince the conference attendees to put on headdresses and do a circle dance to a song composed by Drum Chief Four Feathers, who also claims to be his tribe’s war chief, fire chief, and midwife. Moments like this reveal the Yes Men to be some of the best gonzo political satirists this side of Hunter S. Thompson.
More so than their previous films, the documentary dwells in greater detail on the personal sagas of Mike and Andy, which we find out aren’t their real names, but rather pseudonyms used to shield their private lives (as well as their employers) from undue risk. Unfortunately, the pair’s mundane family issues and employment problems distract from the real meat of the film, which lies in their masterful impersonations of corporate and government entities to promote their political activism, which in recent years has increasingly focused on climate change. Though their personal lives generate only moderate interest, their similar family histories provide an interesting psychological background for their behavior. Both are sons of Holocaust survivors, an experience they concede might have contributed to their skepticism regarding the objectives and intentions of corporations and governments, especially their own.
Throughout their career, the Yes Men have not only shown that there’s room for humor in the world of activism, but that satire itself can be a powerful tool of social and political change. Whereas The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and others television programs have satirized mass media itself to raise the political consciousness of its viewers, the Yes Men employ the 24-hour news cycle and its ethos of instant news to their advantage to further their activism. They also show how Andy Warhol’s famous dictum about everyone’s 15 minutes of fame can be used to achieve radical political objectives. While this may come as heartening news, the film also briefly examines the way their opposition uses the same tactics to further their own agendas, especially when it comes to discrediting scientific research on climate change. Both sides thrive off the world of instant news, where reality is often lost in the media frenzy to break a new story. Nevertheless, the Yes Men show that while reality might get lost in this struggle, the truth does occasionally emerge from the chaos.