DVD Review: Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and the Media

22 Jan

Everybody’s guilty of everything. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to over the last few days as I absorbed the thinking and words of Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher, political activist, cognitive scientist…the list is endless…in the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent.

To be fair, that opening  line isn’t a quote from Chomsky himself but from an interviewer who is going all out to undermine his guest’s points of view, only to beaten back with the strength of Chomsky’s superior understanding of world politics. There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the film.

Born in 1928 to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Avram Noam Chomsky was a bookish child who wrote his first article, on the threat of fascism, at the age of 10. From there he got serious.

Building on the ideas put forward in Chomsky’s book of the same name, Manufacturing Consent focuses on the author’s analysis of the press. His claim that in dictatorship’s governments use guns to fight wars while in democracies they use the media is a compelling one, ideological control seemingly obvious if we just look close enough.

Following Chomsky’s arguments can be a rewarding, if exhausting, experience. After watching the first 40 minutes or so I’ll admit that my mind felt like it had gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson and I was grateful for the DVD pause button: at just shy of three hours, I needed all my faculties in working order.

On restarting the film I was rewarded with some of the most intelligent commentary on political decision making I’ve ever seen. Chomsky’s aim to arm his readers and listeners with a form of intellectual self-defence against the barrage of misinformation and misdirection sent our way every day of the week is admirable, though quite how many people understand all of it is debatable.

There’s an important moment during one of the many interviews brought together by the film’s makers, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, when Chomsky tells of a time when he stood beside a boy in the school playground who was being bullied by classmates, only to abandon him a few moments later when he got scared: his guilt at leaving his friend to get beaten up made him want to always fight for the underdog.

Insights into who Chomsky is, what makes him tick, are threaded through the film, though I would like to have heard more about this side of the man. Constant cuts to and from interviews that take place at different stages in his life are welcome for their attempts to provide a greater overview of his work, but they also occasionally fragment the points he’s trying to make.

The segments devoted to Chomsky’s disgust at the West’s treatment of East Timor – the US press dropped their coverage of the civil war in East Timor to zero during the Vietnam war – is perhaps the strongest segment of the film. Watching  a US official try to refute Chomsky’s reasoned argument is a joy, if frightening in what it reveals about those in power.

As a primer for the work of Chomsky this is truly invaluable. Watching the film in 40 or 50 minute segments may not be in the true spirit of the film, but I’m looking forward to returning to it again in a few weeks to try and catch up on what I missed first time around.

Whether you agree with Noam Chomsky or not doesn’t really matter. In an age where the internet offers us near unlimited opportunities to learn more about the world we live in, if this excellent documentary inspires just a few of its viewers to try and look beyond what we take for granted in the press and politics, we might be surprised with what we discover.

DVD Extras

Never mind that the documentary on the first disc is just under three hours long: the extras on disc two come in at over three-and-a-half hours!

Perhaps of most interest here are the updated interviews with the films directors and Chomsky himself. The latter has changed little over the years, with East Timor still a major issue that causes him concern.

Elsewhere, clips used in the main feature are given proper context with the presence of two full interview’s from 1969 and 1986.

Those extras in full:

  • Interview with directors (2007)
  • Interview with Chomsky (2007)
  • Chomsky v Buckley (1969)
  • Chomsky v Silber (1986)
  • Chomsky v Dershowitz (2005)
  • Necessary Illusions demo tape (1989)
  • Companion book to the film (266pp-downloadable pdf)
  • Fully uncompressed PCM stereo audio

DVD Specifications

  • Publisher: BFI
  • Release Date: 26 January 2009
  • RRP: £19.95
  • Catalogue no. BFIVD658
  • Certificate: 12
  • Discs: 2
  • Subtitles: English, optional subtitles for the hearing impaired on feature film
  • Running Time: 167 mins + 215 mins (extras)
  • Aspect Ratio: Original 1.33.1
  • Visit the BFI Filmstore for more information
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