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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Consent': Intriguing Look Inside an Intriguing Mind

April 29, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Talking head documentaries are only as involving as the head doing the talking, and "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" has the great advantage of having as its subject America's most controversial intellectual, a soft-spoken provocateur whose radical theories clash with the norm at every turn.

For those who find Chomsky's name familiar but can't call his theories readily to mind, "Manufacturing Consent" (at the Nuart for a week) functions as an intellectually challenging crash course in the man's coolly contentious analysis, laying out his thoughts in a package that is clever and accessible if (at nearly three hours) rather longer than it needs to be.

One reason for all those minutes is that there are at least two Chomskys and possibly even more. Born in 1928, the son of a Hebrew scholar, Chomsky emerged in the late 1950s as the preeminent figure in modern linguistics. So great was his stature that when a group of linguists attempted to teach a chimpanzee to speak, they naturally named him Nim Chimpsky.

Then, in 1964, Chomsky begin a second career as a political activist because, he says, "it was immoral not to." Though he has an almost boyish inability to resist self-consciously incendiary statements such as "if the Nuremburg laws were invoked, every American President would be hung" and "the Bible is the most genocidal book ever written," most of Chomsky's reputation, and the brunt of this film, is based on his theories on the media's role in thought control in a democratic society.

Totalitarian states, Chomsky says, don't need thought control; they use a bludgeon instead. Democracies, however, have to take charge of the way people think, and they do this, he theorizes, by having the media set an agenda, push a perception of the world that satisfies the needs of both government and government-supported corporate interests.

As an example of how the major media set an agenda, "Manufacturing Consent" deals extensively with the New York Times coverage of the parallel crises in Cambodia and East Timor. The former was extensively written about as one of the great genocidal massacres, while the later crisis, which Chomsky says was just as bad if not worse, was downplayed because our corporate/political interests were more directly at stake.

Given the weightiness of Chomsky's thought, directors Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar, who spent four years on the project and tirelessly followed their subject all over the world, have tried to make "Manufacturing Consent" as viewer-friendly as possible.

For one thing, though the film is clearly in Chomsky's corner, it takes care to present the views of those who think the idea of elites setting agendas is, in the words of author Tom Wolfe, "absolute rubbish." And the directors have worked hard to vary the modes of presenting Chomsky's talking head, inserting it in everything from giant shopping mall video displays to a sports stadium screen.

"Manufacturing Consent" also relies heavily on all manner of visual gimcracks, from snappy graphics to unconsciously corny old documentaries, to juice things up. Some of these, for instance, the physical unrolling of the 1,175 index column inches for New York Times 1978-79 coverage of Cambodia versus the measly 70 inches for East Timor, are especially effective, but all show an understanding of the necessity of making abstract ideas palatable to a wide audience.

Given that, it is unfortunate that "Manufacturing Consent" cannot resist detours that unnecessarily slow things down. Though an examination of the difficulty Chomsky got into by defending the free speech rights of a French professor who denies the existence of the Holocaust is fascinating, a gimmicky trip to Media, Pa., and another to the offices of Z magazine could have been avoided. By putting out the film at this length, its makers have made it regrettably likely that it will play most to those who need its message least.

'Manufacturing Consent'

A Necessary Illusions/NFB Studio C production, released by Zeitgesit Films Ltd. Directors Peter Wintonick, Mark Achbar. Producers Mark Achbar, Peter Wintonick, Adam Symansky. Executive producers Colin Neale, Dennis Murphy. Editor Peter Wintonick. Music Carl Schultz. Running time: 2 hours, 47 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (serious themes).

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