FILM REVIEW ‌ Fascist Filmmaking 

A one-man polemic fails to make the movie grade

America: Freedom to Fascism
South Windermere Cinema
94 Folly Road
Oct 17-19, 7 and 9.30 p.m.

What does an audience expect from a movie? Not all of them have to be feature length. The movie industry was built around silent one-reelers, generally 10 minutes long. Does a movie have to tell a story? Not really; impressionistic documentaries get by on mood and visuals, not narrative. It doesn't even have to have a central concept or character — a number of anthology movies, telling multiple stories bound only by a loose theme.

A movie can mean many different things, but surely it has to have the illusion of movement. After all, the word is short for "moving picture." Yet Derek Jarman's Blue is a memorable example of a feature that held one static image. It made the grade as a piece of visual art and a movie too.

Aaron Russo's two hour documentary America: Freedom to Fascism, currently striking fear into the hearts of theatergoers nationwide, should be a movie — it has a main character (Russo himself), an informative point of view (Russo's), and even a beginning, middle, and end (written by Russo). But it doesn't feel like a real movie.

America focuses on the lack of a written law that requires us to pay income tax. As Russo develops this idea, interviewing lawyers, politicians, and authors who can't find that law, he also examines the Federal Reserve. He learns from his eager interviewees that the 16th Amendment was never ratified by Congress, and that the IRS can be heavy-handed when it collects its debts.

From there, Russo decides that income tax is an instrument of totalitarianism. A small cartel of bankers control the government and media, we're living in a police state, the Iraq War is an attempt by the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England to control oil interests, and within a few years we could all be implanted with electronic chips to track our spending and our lives.

America touches on a lot of hot topics, including the effects globalization has had on our nation's labor force, the weakening value of the dollar, the Real ID Act (standardizing federally approved IDs), and the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11. But that's all it does — touch on them. Russo tries to pack so much into his opus that he comes across as a guy on a soapbox, running off on tangents. One minute we're shown a list of Bush's latest Executive Orders; the next an IRS raid is reenacted with a photo and a couple of handheld video shots.

America's producer, director, editor, and star Russo's a smart, witty guy with a decades-long track record. As he tells the audience on more than one occasion, he's an award-winning film producer (his most notable credit is 1983's hit comedy Trading Places). At his best, he uses every conceivable cinematic trick to engage the audience — stirring slo-mo shots of the American flag, snappy soundbites, a conspiratorial tone ("we'd discovered a government secret!"), and some investigative-style scenes where he roves with a camera crew. It's as if he's seen how powerful and effective well-made documentaries can be and has taken a little from each of them. Unfortunately, the rest of America is in a very messy state.

Apart from its wayward focus, Russo's lack of an objective producer or distributor is the real problem here. There's no one to channel his enthusiasm, or edit out personal opinions that don't really add anything to the debate. "Most politicians will sell their souls for a dollar," he tells us. Gee, really? Wiser heads might also have restrained Russo's heavy hand as he juxtaposed his ideas with shots of gangsters and the Soviet flag.

There have been some great semi-professional video documentaries doing the rounds recently, but few of them collect the thoughts of one guy in such a muddled way as this. By creating and distributing his movie himself, Russo will get a lot of personal satisfaction out of the project, but it won't have as much impact as it could have with a few executive orders of its own. As it stands, with a corner-cutting budget, heavy reliance on text, and myopically opinionated editing, it's the filmic equivalent of the authoritarianism that Russo fears so much.


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