Film producer, 2004 Libertarian presidential primary candidate, and independent documentary filmmaker Aaron Russo’s film Democracy: Freedom to Fascism starts out as an examination of the injustice of Income Tax and the illegality the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But it quickly devolves into an unfocused and occasionally confused screed, in which Russo seizes the opportunity to tap into Americans’ natural antipathy to paying taxes (after all, this is the nation that fought for its independence over just such matters) in order to deliver an alarmist rant about ID cards, implanted chips, the Patriot Act and America’s slide toward fascism.
I happen to buy much of what Russo is selling, particularly when he attacks the dissolution of freedoms under the rule of America’s Far Right, or when he points a finger at the conspiracy of the wealthy and privileged, of corporations and banks, to reduce political influence in the economic world to virtually nil through the imposition of inaptly named free trade agreements, or his clear and intelligent argument that “the war on terror is really a war on [individual’s] freedom.” However, he presents his case in a scattershot manner, failing to properly investigate a number of potentially interesting subjects in favour of apocalyptic pronouncements pitched so close to hysteria that you’d be excused for wondering if Russo has recently joined a doomsday cult. And there are moments when his notions verge on sort of yellow journalism that made theories of International Jewish Conspiracy so popular with Henry Ford and his fellow travelers in year’s past. Further, Russo’s arguments are undercut by the extremist nature of his claims. His penchant for hyperbolic exclamations becomes nearly comic. (“Income tax is enslaving Americans.” “My heart stopped.” “I got an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.”) I hesitate to psychoanalyze Russo’s fixation on internal organ dysfunction, but he could certainly stand to broaden his metaphorical palette.
His alarmism is matched by dubious interpretations of facts. For instance, when Russo claims that the development of the Federal Reserve, which is a private banking facility, is equitable with the politics of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto—the same Manifesto that urges workers to cast off their chains, that promotes the gradual dissolution of the state as society achieves utopian socialism, wherein the guiding principle is from each according to his ability, to each according to his need—you have to ask how, exactly, this jibes with the intense self-interest and private accumulation of wealth that are hallmarks of American-style corporate capitalism. It makes you wonder what Russo’s been sprinkling on his Libertarian Corn Flakes.
From a technical standpoint, the film is also a tad embarrassing. The editing of both music and image is—and I’m being kind here—amateurish. Screaming intertitles (“Freedom!” “Taxes!” “Tyranny!”) are Russo’s way of button-pushing his audience into compliance, but they’re more likely to get freethinking viewer’s hackles up. Throughout, the movie is so humorless that it makes you wax nostalgic for the good old days when Michael Moore was sticking it to the man.
Finally, having recently revisited the film, I couldn’t help but think that Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet explored similar material in a far more interesting way in the “fictional” classic Network. While Russo shares many of the qualities of Peter Finch’s Howard Beale, including rage, fear and paranoia, unlike Beale, Russo’s tirade lacks clarity and the intellectual will to follow some of his ideas to their conclusion. Rather than examine grassroots political movements that might lead to some sorta sea change in the way that we do politics and business in this Brave New World, Russo’s libertarianism leads him to settle for vaguely exhorting viewers to refuse to get a government ID card and to beware of stealthily implanted microchips. America: Freedom to Fascism is provocative and even intriguing, but when asked to move beyond emotional button-pushing and into something resembling constructive intellectual engagement of the crisis, it falls on its face.