Bumrushed onto American screens like late-breaking news, the Japanese TV doc Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times is a relatively thin slice of Chomskiana—a chapter from any of the man’s many interview volumes, or even an hour of his C-SPAN dialogues, has more political substance. The movie’s sudden appearance, on the other hand, is nothing if not an act of film-exhibition intervention, mere weeks before the ostensible beginning of a nonsensical war that, like the last five decades’ worth of U.S.-led conflicts, reflects only the self-preservative instincts of power. In taped footage shot as late as this past May, Chomsky at 73 is calm and quick-minded as ever—ideally, he’d have his own weekly PBS hour of cant to quote casualty figures and burn through the many layers of carefully engineered U.S. propaganda. (As it is, it’s surprising even this most media-loathed of dissidents hasn’t been more tele-visible since his mini-transcript 9-11 became a bestseller.) The uninitiated heading to Film Forum might find it the best sawbuck they’ve spent all year.
Chomsky himself hardly warrants a cult of personality—uncharismatic and reserved, the man works hard at being merely the bearer of bad news. At the same time, despite his reputation as a massively endowed brainiac or “political philosopher,” Chomsky rarely writes or says anything that requires a Ph.D. to grasp. Rather, he is a gimlet-eyed moralist with instant recall, to whom ethical ground, high and low, is earned by action, not rhetoric. A conscientious reading of newspapers (including the business press, where Corporate America dares to be honest about its motives and tactics) is often all Chomsky requires to divine what’s realpolitik for the average world citizen. This accumulation of cold facts results in an almost childishly simple perspective: The survival and growth of power, namely American, leads eventually to the bulldozing of innocent citizenry. In the last year, his position translates to questioning how the U.S. can be engaged in a “war on terrorism” when the mountains of civilian corpses we’ve left in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Mideast, and western Africa qualify our most sanctimonious of nations as Champion Bullgoose Terror-Monger.
Discussing September 11, 2001, in Power and Terror, Noam fires his rocket launcher from the hip: “This is an historic event, but unfortunately not because of the scale or the nature of the atrocity but because of who the victims were.” (The irony marinating the “historic” is typically acidic.) American-born director John Junkerman keeps the proceedings determinedly no-frills (in contrast to the distractingly spiffy 1992 doc Manufacturing Consent) and only glancingly hagiographic, focusing on taped lectures from Berkeley to the Bronx, and on fresh interviews. Chomsky just talks, about the deeply scarred Central American perspective on 9-11, the Eisenhower administration’s documented understanding of the Arab world’s justified U.S.-hatred, the hypocrisy of Turkey’s dedication to anti-terrorism, the press blackout on the 40th anniversary of our initial assault on South Vietnam, the fact that the torture of 50,000 or so Palestinians has been paid for by American tax dollars, etc. Comparing U.S. slaughter abroad to the Al Qaeda attacks, Chomsky simply asks us, “If one is right, why is the other wrong?” As he points out, the president’s fave philosopher, Jesus, would’ve had to ask the same question.
A conventionally orchestrated docu-history on the defunct German Democratic Republic, Hava Kohav Beller’s The Burning Wall treads the time line from the perspective of dissidents (most of them disillusioned Communists who began the post-war project with their anti-fascist fists in the air) and their harassers at Stasi, the quasi-nation’s massive surveillance agency. It’s estimated that almost a full third of the GDR’s population was being monitored and reported on by an informant force nearly half as large. Within a few short years from the hopeful Stalinism of 1949, a rampaging mini-Soviet terror state was executing citizens, imprisoning writers, and, by 1961, building a massive wall across Berlin to keep desperate East Germans from walking west.
Following a few key figures (predominantly, activist-scientist-bureaucrat Robert Havemann), Beller favors archival shots of children too heavily, but scores with actual Stasi tapes and interviews with ex-commanders, most of whom conspicuously avoid admitting remorse. The dynamic of rationalization and transferred guilt is stunning given the proximity of Nazism (how could so many stomach the GDR’s use, in the ’50s, of uniforms, parades, salutes, and übermensch-ism?). Just as surprising is the similarly craven sense displayed by many of the bureaucrat witnesses that the republic’s collapse lies in the safely distant past, rather than a mere 12 years earlier. On the surface, Beller’s film is an acute primer on mid-century socialist statism gone inevitably screwy, but beneath it, there’s something to be gleaned about the psychology of German nationhood.
A Cold War artifact that died with Sean Connery’s hair follicles but refuses to get buried, James Bond returns, again, using North Korea as a convenient archvillain just as Bush II has. Die Another Day has a relatively grim first third (Bond is tortured by the NK military, and after being traded for an evil thug with diamonds embedded in his face, goes rogue to exact revenge), but thereafter the film descends into the usual deafening twaddle, climaxing (for the first of three times) in what looks like a parking garage made of melting ice. The dialogue is pablum, as always, and the plot idiotic: The smug mega-baddie (Toby Stephens) has spent apparent billions on a mirrored-laser satellite for the sole purpose of clearing mines from the Korean border’s DMZ. Dissing a Bond movie is quite like calling a dog stupid, but when it has the temerity to run over two hours, you feel like winding up with a kick.