Truth Be Told: Collapse, The Most Dangerous Man in America

FILM, Film Festivals

Two whistleblowers on America’s secrets and lies.

Given the saturation of activist filmmaking—and much less credibly, conspiracy documentary—in recent years, what makes Chris Smith’s Collapse anything other than another doomsday pamphlet? Here, the director of American Movie strikes upon an equally single-minded protagonist to that film’s wannabe horror auteur: Michael C. Ruppert, an ex-law enforcer turned outspoken dissident who’s convinced we’re all going to hell. To the conspiracy theorist’s credit (though he insists he deals in “conspiracy facts”), the articulate, belligerent presentation of his thesis on imminent global catastrophe is delivered with such compelling self-righteousness, that it’s easy to forget his central argument around peak oil is unconstructive, if not decidedly old hat. Piecing together a series of angry monologues by Ruppert, and shooting them in portentous, under-lit surroundings, Smith’s documentary is essentially a soapbox for the chain-smoking prophet, who takes this golden opportunity to bludgeon us with overfamiliar insights (the Iraq war, mainstream media), extol the power of love (no kidding), and most pertinently, elaborate on the world economic meltdown, which he claims to have predicted (Greece’s current debt crisis included).

As far as Ruppert is concerned, we’ve already reached the point of no return—oil is rapidly depleting, food shortages are a foregone conclusion, entire infrastructures will eventually disintegrate—his cue to prepare us for the impending post-apocalypse. This morbid fascination with self-destruction is all rather Hollywood in its zealousness, and despite Ruppert’s suggestions for survival coming across as surprisingly rational, his deeply pessimistic outlook does him no favours in dodging the alarmist tag he is so desperate to avoid. Offering no solutions, and dismissing those already in the works, Ruppert’s utter resignation to the speculated environmental, economic, and social collapse makes for great disaster movie material (ironically, the sinking of the Titanic is one his favoured analogies), but also begs to be challenged. And while it doesn’t help that Ruppert believes he’s above reproach (“I don’t do debates anymore… I don’t have too!”), it is Smith’s reservation towards querying his subject’s defeatist worldview—a handful of timidly posed questions from the sideline all he can muster—that disappointingly confirms Collapse as a missed opportunity, all the more frustrating given the film’s shadowy, basement-like setting screams in-your-face interrogation.

For less talk and more action, try The Most Dangerous Man in America, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s rousing profile of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Taking Ruppert’s abandoned idealism of “changing things from the inside” and following through to the bitter end, the former one-time marine and Pentagon staffer—out of distress at the country’s involvement in Vietnam and his own complicity in the shaping of the conflict—smuggled papers out of the Defense Department in 1969 containing the gory details of US Government warmongering. Tending to labour the point that Ellsberg suffered for his cause—the tormented antihero of a morality play, compelled as much by personal guilt as he was social conscience—the documentary fares better as a political thriller, the machinations of which kick into gear when the Pentagon Papers are leaked to the New York Times and Congress. Granted, Ellsberg’s doggedness in exposing the truth (7000-odd pages of Xeroxing along the way) rode a tidal wave of vehement anti-war sentiment; what was really ‘dangerous’ about his act of betrayal to the Nixon administration was the galvanizing effect it had on American newspapers. Cut to a soundtrack of Dick’s raving, mad-as-hell tirades against the defiance of the Washington Post and other celebrated dailies, the film is finally a stirring reminder of crack journalism and the importance of free press, foregrounded in an era where deceit was par for the course.

‘Collapse’, Dir. Chris Smith
USA, 2009; 82 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington (Christchurch, Dunedin TBC).
‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’, Dir. Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
USA, 2009; 94 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington (Christchurch, Dunedin TBC). For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.