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Case Number 13098: Small Claims Court

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Speaking Freely: Chalmers Johnson

Cinema Libre // 2007 // 52 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // February 28th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Russell Engebretson once ruled a vast and sprawling empire, but was laid low by a Balrog and an unlucky roll of the dice.

The Charge

In this exclusive interview with Chalmers Johnson, you will find out why the practice of empire building is, by no means, a thing of the past. As the United States continues to expand its military force around the globe, the consequences are being suffered by each and every one of us.

The Case

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, published just before the Twin Towers attack, was Chalmers Johnson's first published book in what would become the first volume of an inadvertent trilogy. The two books that followed were The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis. The interview presented here, in essence, is an extremely condensed overview of the trilogy.

As Chalmers Johnson states at the beginning of the July 2007 interview, he is a retired 76-year-old former naval officer and University of California college professor who taught primarily East Asian politics. Between 1967 and 1973 he was a consultant for the Office of National Estimates for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Johnson, a self-described former cold war warrior, was deeply disenchanted with American foreign policy after his stint with the C.I.A. Although he found the work interesting, he says, "it contributed to my view that the United States did not have an intelligence service, that in fact the C.I.A. was the private army of the president, being used for highly dubious, invariably disastrous purposes in other people's countries—starting with the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 for the sake of the British Petroleum Company." He continues by summarizing in a few terse paragraphs the sordid business of how the elected prime minister of Iran was deposed with a helping hand from the Eisenhower administration.

After visiting Okinawa and studying the societal problems created by the military base there—17,000 Marines in a crowded Japanese population of about 200,000—Johnson's view of the cold war changed. He saw it as a cover for imperialism in which America stepped into the shoes of the British, beginning in 1946 when they told Truman they could no longer maintain their position in Greece. Consequently, the U.S. began to assume that role in a "sort of seamless transfer of power among English speaking imperialists."

The last two chapters (out of five) are "Things That Can't Go On Forever, Don't" and "The Imperial Presidency." They are especially alarming if one agrees with Chalmer Johnson's diagnosis of 21st century America. On one hand, we have a president who is literally unaccountable to the rule of law thanks to "signing statements" and a weak-willed congress, and on the other hand a nation being eaten alive by the military-industrial complex (over 700 U.S. military bases worldwide and more money spent on the military than all other nations in the world combined). He finishes with the chilling admonition that despite the jobs and economic growth generated by building nuclear weapons and armaments, militarism and imperialism is a suicide pact. It is the way empires end. He says, "I've had a more favorable reaction to Nemesis than to my other two [books], which I'd like to think is because it is a better book—but I'm not sure of that. I think the public is scared to death. They actually know we are in terrible trouble. We're headed toward a cliff, and they don't know what to do about it."

It's a mighty stretch to call this DVD a documentary at all. The whole film is shot with a fixed, single video camera in what appears to be Mr. Johnson's tastefully decorated living room, in which he perches on the end of a couch and delivers his point-of-view on the American empire for 52 minutes. In fact, Speaking Freely is to the documentary what a whiskey neat is to a foo-foo mixed drink with a little umbrella. No offense to Daiquiri lovers, but sometimes a stiff shot straight from the bottle is the appropriate choice. It's an unadorned presentation, but perhaps more brutally effective in its starkness than a handsomely mounted documentary might prove to be.

There's little to say about picture quality, which is soft and rather grainy, but adequate for an interview. Most importantly, the sound is clear with a consistent volume throughout. The only extra worth mention is a two page biography. There are no featurettes or additional commentaries.

Chalmer Johnson's thoroughly researched and heavily annotated writings are difficult to refute. The DVD is absolutely worth a rental as an introduction to his written works and a brief overview of his political philosophy.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Cinema Libre
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 52 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Bio of Chalmers Johnson

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