IndiePix // 2008 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 26th, 2009
A film by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern.
Based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name, The End of America is a somber, aggressive look at the state of American politics after eight years of George W. Bush. I'll leave it to your imagination as to whether this is a positive or negative take.
From filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern (The Devil Came On Horseback) comes an examination into America and the sweeping policy changes put forth during the Bush administration. Hosted by Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women) and based on her book, The End of America argues that American democracy as we have known it for the last two hundred years is under attack and paints some uncanny similarities between recent Bush policy decisions and similar controversial decisions made by history's dictators and fascists.
At the risk of spoilers, I say with all confidence that despite the gloomy title, America is still alive and kicking after the end of The End of America. Based on material from best-selling liberal pinko author Naomi Wolf, the documentary sets out to quantify how recent policy changes and shifts in national priorities since the War on Terror have significantly eroded personal freedom and destabilized the very foundations on which America was conceived. It's a heck of an accusation, especially when she starts with the Nazi Germany comparisons. Godwin, eat your heart out.
The film is assembled primarily from talking points by author Naomi Wolf, giving a presentation in front of a rapt audience, and the obligatory interviews and stock footages backing up the point, following a similar structure to her book of the same name. In one sense, it acts as an excellent advertisement for her book, extremely critical of the Bush administration and their policies towards civil liberties and personal freedoms. Very left-leaning, but the points made here are not new points. Anyone with an interest in politics will have heard all these points before. There is no new information put forth in The End of America, no smoking gun, and no groundbreaking argument to swing the opinions of the masses. What the film does well is lay down a pattern of behavior, a string of seemingly unrelated events that when taken together suggest something unpleasant about the direction of America, boiling down eight years of Bush policy into a pattern that bears an embarrassingly similar agenda to how Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy began restructuring their democracies.
Wolf structures her argument by citing a ten-step sequence of events that Hitler and Mussolini used in seizing slow-but-total control over their respective democracies: invoking a terrifying internal and external enemy (terrorism), create a secret prison where torture can take place (Guantanamo Bay), develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens (Blackwater), set up an internal surveillance system (FISA), and on and on. I won't spoil it all for you, but her argument gets oddly compelling as the film rolls along, even though some of her points are stretches. Even for those on the right, it is hard to disagree with the eerie similarities between grim legal tomes like FISA, the U.S. Patriot Act, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the establishment of routine torture by the U.S. military, and the observation that America is not the first country to do bad things with good intentions. Make no mistake; this is an unflinchingly left-centered documentary, with nothing but critical admonishing for Bush and his policies and zero examination of the motivations behind the government making such controversial decisions. It is a strong argument, but utterly one-sided.
Filmed during an election year which ultimately ousted Bush and his party, The End of America feels oddly timed, but makes the point again and again that the new administration -- whoever that would end up being -- would have to take action to reverse some of the more controversial and limiting aspects of recent White House policy, or America may never get the liberties back again. We'll let you know how that turns out.
We received a watermarked screener copy of The End of America, so we can't give you an accurate impression of how the film scores on audio and video, since our copy might not be representative of a final retail product. Our copy was soft, distorted, and inconsistent on the visual end, with the fidelity varying wildly based on the material -- stock footage, handheld cameras, interview footage, etc. The audio came only in a simple stereo presentation, with a maudlin and manipulatively dramatic score. Pretty, though!
Extras on this two-disc set seem pretty nice. We get a full-length feature commentary track with constitutional expert Professor Walter Murphy, who offers up a stiff but informative backdrop on the arguments made on film. Extended interviews offer uncut testimony from various talking heads, from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists to former CIA and U.S. Army Court Chief Judges. Three standalone features offer interviews with Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, footage of the film's debut at the Hamptons International Film Festival and a short retrospective of America's treatment of minorities, "Targeting Minorities." In addition, we get a theatrical trailer and two 2008 election additions: a pre-election and post-election update.
Any documentary inflammatory enough to title itself The End of America is obviously going out of its way for attention. While the majority of the film is relatively straightforward and logical, some of the arguments made by Wolf are spurious, like her constant harping of "This happened in Germany!" This kind of fearmongering seems to undermine her entire argument about how the fearmongering the Bush administration does is a negative thing...or maybe it's only bad when they do it?
Right-wingers will struggle with perceived malicious undertones that pervade this and other leftist documentary films. There is an unspoken suggestion in the ominous music, the camera cuts, and the unflattering clips selected suggesting indirectly that Bush and his cronies deliberately set out to ruin America, which is just stupid. One can disagree with their politics and their actions, absolutely, but nobody gets elected president by wanting to make things worse for America. While Wolf is careful never to make the insinuation however facetious or indirect that Bush is on the same level as Mussolini, her logic gets tenuously close at times.
The End of America morosely hits its obligatory liberal talking points about how the Bush administration has turned America into pre-Nazi Germany, how our civil liberties and freedoms have been underwritten, et cetera. Problem is, after eight years of Bush, this film suffers from bad timing. Not only have we heard it all before, but we've got hope and optimism in the White House for the first time in almost a decade. This kind of sullen, cautionary tale was all the rage four years ago, but feels kind of depressing now.
Not guilty, but not as relevant as it was a few years ago.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer