Cinema Libre // 2011 // 69 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // April 14th, 2012
Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business, and our politics.
Ethos: A Time for Change was written and directed by Peter McGrain. It's a 69-minute talking-heads documentary hosted by Woody Harrelson, with excerpted clips of interviews with Chalmers Johnson, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Michael Moore, along with a few others. The back of the DVD case states: "Ethos lifts the lid on a Pandora's Box of systemic issues that almost guarantee failure in every aspect of our lives -- from the environment to our democracy and our own personal liberty." Several topics are briefly covered in each chapter: the military, corporations, public relations, the media, and American politics in general.
The documentary is well-meaning and delves into a few subjects that certainly need more public airing, though it will come across as elementary to anyone who is already familiar with these topics. For example, the chapter explaining the Federal Reserve is a non-governmental institution run by banksters is hardly a revelation (William Greider's Secrets of the Temple, published way back in 1987, is still one of the best books on the subject). However, the doc has another flaw that is particularly bothersome, one that tends to undermine its serious political tone. Woody Harrelson begins his talk by saying, "We live in a world of conspiracy theories, and all I ask is that you keep an open mind." However, he not much later pointedly mentions the Bilderberg group. For those who haven't heard, the Bilderberg group is to conspiracy buffs as Area 51 is to ufologists. Although, thank goodness, the Bilderberg group is not directly discussed, there are other places where the doc leans toward conspiracy-related explanations of events, as in the Twin Towers segment.
There are loose-knit conspiracies everywhere, but most of the facts are easily available with a minimum of effort. Occult Illuminati agendas are not necessary to explain the horrendous mess the world is suffering right now. The end credits acknowledge a debt to some previous films, including the often dubious Zeitgeist and excellent The Corporation, which perhaps explains the sometimes uneasy mixture of questionable conspiracy themes with the serious political analysis.
Furthermore, this doc concludes by declaring that the grand solution to our problems is to stop spending money on useless items produced by outlaw corporations. While cutting consumption and withholding dollars from rotten companies is a commendable goal, there are a myriad of tactical and practical considerations that preclude that scenario for most citizens: organic food is expensive; cars and gasoline are unavoidable necessities for most of us; and, unless we wish to live in the streets, rent and mortgage payments to the rentier class are a necessity. We are slaves to our washing machines, automobiles, computers, and techno gadgetry, inextricably embedded in the matrix (or the American hologram as essayist Joe Bageant put it). There is no easy escape, perhaps no escape at all, from the looming specter of peak-everything.
Another black mark against Ethos is the exceedingly substandard DVD transfer. A majority of the clips appear to be taken straight from YouTube. All too often, the video is washed out and macro-blocked, and the sound plagued with the whooshing distortion of massively compressed audio. The video and audio segments of Woody Harrelson's narration are reasonably clean, but a stack of monitors dominate more than half of the screen to his right, and run the same continuous loop of images throughout the narrative. I understand that compromises are unavoidable when filming on a shoestring budget, but too much of the documentary is encumbered with this sort of unimaginative editing and poor quality video. Harrelson is every inch a professional actor and obviously has a passion for the material, but that's not enough to make up for the doc's lackluster presentation.
Ultimately, the low-quality picture and sound, the lack of extras or subtitles, generic electronic score, and the occasional lapses into fringe conspiracy theory undermine the serious and timely messages this documentary tries to convey. Ethos: A Time for Change is a passable elementary discussion of many problems facing the world today, but I can't help but feel that reading a few of the books by some of the authors featured in the film (for a start, Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent and Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson) would be time better spent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated