Robert Kane Pappas, 2003, USA, 103 mins
Michael Moore, Greg Palast
Joining a growing line of documentaries aiming to reveal the staggering (and downright terrifying) power of the right-wing American political system, Orwell Rolls in His Grave concentrates on the role played by the media. In fact, director Robert Kane Pappas implies that the government does not necessarily control the media, but that the media controls everything. Quoting liberally from George Orwell's 1984, Pappas links the American political and media conglomerates to Orwell's vision of a totalitarian society controlled via "doublespeak" (political spin and journalistic euphemisms), "the permanent war" (keeping the public on a continual level of threat), and "The Ministry of Truth" (corporate media and the rewriting of history).
Pappas gathers a number of interviewees consisting of former newscast producers, journalists, intellectuals, media professors and legislators who share his concerns. Shot mainly in a talking heads style the subjects offer their views, expert opinions, and research on the idea that "Big Brother" is actually a group of corporations such as AOL, Time/Warner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Disney, Clear Channel and General Electric. After the FCC's (Federal Communication Commission) 1996 Telecommunications Act, this allowed these corporations to buy up as many media outlets as possible. FCC Chairman Michael Powell (who just happens to be Secretary of State Colin's son) stated, "Openness isn't always good". In one of the most stunning (and amusing) moments in the film, Powell, subpoenaed to appear before Congress on charges of betraying the public interest, states on camera, "I have no idea what the public's interests are".
Pappas asks: "Could a media system, controlled by a few global corporations with the ability to overwhelm all competing voices, be able to turn lies into truth?" Media professor Mark Crispin Miller says: "We falsely think of our country as a democracy when it has evolved into a mediacracy, where a media that is supposed to check political abuse is part of the political abuse".
While the news coverage of elections, scandals, and war bombards us with the hope and fervour of a particular political bent, the media simultaneously heightens, exaggerates, hides and buries any elements of history it sees fit. In 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis, the Reagan administration paid the Iranians with arms to keep hold of the hostages until after the election. After the Florida recount for the Gore/Bush election was halted by members of the Senate because it may "threaten irreparable harm to the petitioner" (George W), it was later discovered that the judges had family working for the Bush administration. When BBC reporter Greg Palast offered his meticulously investigated story of vote-machine tampering in Florida to CBS, they turned it down simply because Governor Jeb Bush (George W's cousin) denied it over the phone. And the list goes on and on.
One journalist states, "This isn't news, this is management". Of course, a lot of this may not be too surprising to anybody, but the extent of the media's actual power to control the minds and knowledge of its audience is truly disturbing. With a glimmer of hope in the knowledge that the Telecommunications Act is under investigation, we are also told that the FCC is at this very moment researching the last bastion of public free speech - the internet.
Intriguing, disturbing, and thought provoking, the film is certainly not without its flaws. While Pappas' subjects (including filmed speeches from Palast, Michael Moore, and Tim Robbins) offer eloquent and stimulating discussions, he infuses the film with a large number of authorial blemishes - short distracting snippets of emphatic music, overly-repetitive and unnecessary intertitles with Orwellian messages, and an overuse of close-ups of choice words from the dictionary. Perhaps most cringe inducing is when he addresses the viewer directly from his edit suite, he explains that after seeing a review of one of his films on the same page as Michael Mann's The Insider (another corporate scandal story), Pappas quite seriously tells us - "I took this as a sign". All of which detract from the most accomplished part of the film - the interviews. Shot on a tiny budget, it seems as though Pappas tries too hard to show what a clever director he can be rather than relying on the gripping testament of his guests.