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:: Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky and the Media

This over-long 1992 documentary is quite a slog, but it is definitely of interest. It is essentially a biography of the famous US linguist-cum-dissident Noam Chomsky, with a focus on his activism and ideas on social control, the media, militarism, and related issues.

At the danger of labouring an obvious point, this film, released during the presidency of George Bush Snr, in the aftermath of Bush’s war against Iraq, a war where the media manipulation reached massive levels, is still a highly topical today.

It is interesting to compare and contrast Manufacturing Consent with more recent activist documentaries, such as that of Michael Moore. Although Moore had been making films before Manufacturing Consent, he has used certain techniques that can be seen in this film, and left out others. The politics of Moore and Manufacturing Consent’s directors, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick are obviously left wing. They both make effective use of decades-old archival footage that is now almost comical, and make some good use of humour. But the ability to engage in a somewhat honest discussion of the issues, which this film largely manages to do, generally isn’t found in Moore’s work.

At one point in Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky discusses the way the mainstream media limits debate, setting limits within which discussion can be permitted, so that anyone who comes from outside of those limits comes across as irrational. Within Manufacturing Consent, the film-makers have allowed a wide variety of voices, a lot of Chomsky talking about a variety of topics, but they also feature some of his critics, and not in the five second or ridiculously out of context way that Moore often uses.

This film has quite a lot of Chomsky talking, either pieces to camera, footage of him giving lectures or various interviews to the press; from mainstream journalists to community radio, as well as taking place in some debates. These include talks with US conservative William F Buckley during the Vietnam war, with French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Dutch defence minister, and occasional hecklers. As the footage covers the years of Chomsky’s life, however, the trend shown in this film is of less debating with those who hold different views, and more of him giving speeches to, and answering questions from, people who are obviously star-struck followers.

Chomsky is an intelligent man, with a wide knowledge of many topics, and some interesting ideas about the way the world works. But he is not perfect, and nor is this film. For example, there is a very interesting section comparing massive US press coverage of Khemer Rouge atrocities (crimes committed by a cold war enemy) with the almost non-existent US press coverage of atrocities in East Timor committed by Indonesia (crimes committed by a cold war ally). This is of interest and is discussed very well in the film. This may have been a good time for the filmmakers to raise this issue of statements Chomsky made around that time minimising the khemer rouge crimes, but this was not done.

Perhaps the filmmakers were of the opinion that the larger issues were more important, or they didn’t want to put Chomsky offside by asking difficult questions. It would have been a better film had the directors chosen to include a few more observations of Chomsky that were as pithy as those Chomsky makes of the military-industrial complex. As Chomsky would be the first to point out, film is manipulative and filmmakers construct their work, creating an impression by what they put in and what they leave out. The biases here are much less obtrusive or grating than those found in the work of Moore (or Fox News for that matter), but they do exist, and it would have been better if Chomsky had been taken to task a bit more.

Overall, this is an interesting film, and worth a look. As well as a wealth of Chomsky footage, there is also an interesting look at a number of other figures in the alternative media, and although there is not equal time given to Chomsky’s detractors, they do get a somewhat decent hearing. Although definitely too long (it could have lost 30 minutes without losing much in the way of actual content), Manufacturing Consent is still highly topical. It comes with an impressive list of DVD extras that give a bit more depth, more footage of the Buckley and Foucoult debates, and a tenth anniversary interview with Chomsky reflecting on the film. A director’s commentary could have added much to this film, and it is a pity one was not added.

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