Requiem for the American Dream (Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared Scott, 2016)


Requiem for the American Dream should be required viewing on every college campus in the nation. This is not just because of the film’s concise and lucid overview of the thinking of its interview subject, American intellectual Noam Chomsky, on a critically important topic, the erosion of American democracy and the subsequent rise of income inequality and decline of individual and communal rights and freedoms. This overview is of enormous value, but the film’s other gift to its audience is a model of what political discourse can sound like. At the present moment of rage politics and deafeningly loud appeals to the lizard-brain of the American voter, Chomsky’s quiet, humane voice and deeply informed, thoughtful perspectives provide a badly needed antidote to the prevailing culture of dumbed-down, amped-up public speech.

To say that the film should be required viewing is not to say that it is in any way homework-y. The structure of the film at first runs the risk of seeming so, organizing Chomsky’s ideas into a methodically enumerated list of “Ten Principles of the Concentration of Wealth and Power.” Very quickly, however, the film’s center of gravity becomes clear: it speaks to the heart and mind together through Chomsky’s plaintive call for us to restore humanity to our shared life as citizens. Even as Chomsky’s profound erudition informs his careful, clear-minded thinking, his words carry genuine emotional force. Near the film’s closing, Chomsky comments on the significance of the patterns he has observed:

“The tendencies that we’ve been describing within American society, unless they’re reversed, it’s going to be an extremely ugly society, a society that’s based on Adam Smith’s ‘vile maxim’—‘all for myself, nothing for anyone else’—a society in which normal human instincts and emotions of sympathy, solidarity, and mutual support are driven out. That’s a society so ugly I don’t even know who’d want to live in it. I wouldn’t want my children to.”

There’s nothing policy-wonky here, despite Chomsky’s thoroughgoing awareness of the drivers of public policy, its history, and its implications. Chomsky’s enormous learning is entirely concentrated in the service of human, humane ends.

The film’s title is well chosen: this documentary is truly a requiem for lost possibility, lost opportunity, lost fellow-feeling. There are moments of deep sadness, even horror, in the deliberate corporate and governmental assaults on basic humanity that Chomsky describes and the filmmakers depict. Even so, Chomsky and the filmmakers leave us with a hopeful call to make change:

“The activists are the people who have created the rights that we enjoy… There are huge opportunities. It is a very free society—still the freest in the world. Government has very limited capacity to coerce. Corporate business may try to coerce, but they don’t have the mechanism. So there’s a lot that can be done. If people organize, struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past, then they can win many victories.”

Director-producers Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott shot their interview footage with Chomsky over the course of four years, and they’re to be commended for creating such a clear, tightly constructed, and sharply focused final document from the material they collected. Editor Alan Canant doubtlessly had a daunting task before him in distilling the raw footage to its essentials, and he executed his task with exceptional discipline, bringing the final cut in at a lean 73 minutes. Nothing feels inessential here. Even the music is spare. Recalling the least nerve-jangling work of Philip Glass, Malcolm Francis’s score is unobtrusive and serves only to heighten, quietly, the inherent tension and drama of the real dilemmas and challenges that Chomsky describes. Visually, too, the film works well. Simple but evocative images animated from the work of collage artist Mark Wagner glide across the screen in the film’s intertitles, and carefully chosen (and not excessively familiar) stock footage from various historical moments illustrates the phenomena that Chomsky describes. Together, this able team has done a fine service to Chomsky’s ideas, bringing them to their audience with force, economy, and cogence. This is a film worth paying attention to—and sharing with anyone who has an interest in the promise of genuine democracy.

Requiem for the American Dream opens Friday, March 11 at Grand Illusion Cinema.
Co-director Kelly Nyks will be in attendance Thursday, March 17 for a Q&A.