Almost three hours long, MANUFACTURING CONSENT is an often witty documentary built around the ideas and life of Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguistics professor who has been critical of U.S. foreign policy and society since the days of the war in Vietnam. Directors Mark Achbar and Peter
Wintonick have taken Chomsky's ideas to heart and have larded their film with often hilarious expositions of his theories.
The most frequently recurring image is of giant TV screens overlooking shopping malls, sports stadiums, and even Times Square, with Professor Chomsky speaking about the deleterious effects of the mass media on shaping public opinion. Achbar and Wintonick also use dated, cheery industrials and
inventive enactments to highlight their points. (The film's good humor clearly belongs to its directors, since Chomsky doesn't seem to have a great sense of fun.) Still, Chomsky's point that the media's major function is making money from commercial advertisers is as true of The New York Times as
it is of a neighborhood "giveaway."
Besides this banal truth, the film goes on to the more sophisticated arguments, first made sympathetically by Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, that the press is controlled by elites to educate a small segment of the population, while befuddling the greater mass. Chomsky argues that, like
all great powers, the United States does not care about human rights violations unless they are being carried out by a political opponent. He compares the official outcry at the massacres in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge to the obscurity that shrouded a similar mass murder in East Timor by
Indonesian invaders. The directors show two rolls of news copy from The New York Times. They uncoil each and measure the lengths: less than 100 inches on East Timor, over a thousand on Cambodia. Of course, East Timor is in an abscure corner of South-East Asia, but it is a neighbor of Australia
whose press, Chomsky notes, did cover the grisly events.
The film includes various clips of Chomsky when younger, at a linguistics seminar with Jean Piaget, speaking at Vietnam War "teach-ins," and at various demonstrations. The product of a Depression-era childhood, Chomsky appears descended from a hallowed line of socialist critics with a touch of
anarcho-syndicalist sentiment. In a debate with William F. Buckley, he openly compares the CIA coup in Guatemala with Stalin's in Prague, and warns people of trusting any country's state apparatus. Chomsky's idealism has also gotten him into trouble with apparent allies. His defense of free speech
was rather cunningly used by a French publisher as the preface to a nasty book revising the idea of a Nazi genocide campaign. He also shows a touch of the prig, when he speaks of sports as a means of "training in irrational jingoism"--something that could be taken as an ideological justification
of a child's dislike of high school football.
The New York Times is a particular target in the film, and in one hilarious sequence Achbar and Wintonick don surgical masks and gowns to "re-enact" the surgery that Times editors performed on an article that originally appeared in The Times of London. The film also discusses the limits to the
range of debate about public issues on TV news shows, with the fine line between time constraints and a weakness for always using the same quasi-official representatives--the "usual suspects"--growing almost invisible.
MANUFACTURING CONSENT is too long; the sequences filmed in Media, PA, are basically worth only a few seconds, not the 22 minutes allotted to what is a one-time pun. Some of the interviews, often done overseas where Chomsky is more celebrated, are too brief to be all that interesting, while one
from British radio, when Chomsky slights a book about the Spanish Civil War, is a tease. There is also a built-in commercial for two of Chomsky's outlets, Z magazine and his publishers in Boston, South End Press, that is a little jarring.
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: Almost three hours long, MANUFACTURING CONSENT is an often witty documentary built around the ideas and life of Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguistics professor who has been critical of U.S. foreign policy and society since the days of the war in Vietnam. Direc… (more)