Film Review: American Empire: An Act of Collective Madness

When Woodrow Wilson is a villain in your movie, viewer beware!

What is supposed to be a radical-left film, American Empire: An Act of Collective Madness comes across at first as a right-wing tract. Why? Because filmmaker Patrea Patrick’s opening message about the evils of the Federal Reserve sounds as loopy as the utterances from the Republican Party candidates during the last general election primaries. (Does anyone remember Gov. Rick Perry threatening to assault Fed Chair Ben Bernanke?) Late in the documentary, we even hear one interviewee bellow, “We need to take our country back!” While this doesn’t mean we should ignore the film’s other research or the individual views of some of the other on-camera speakers, it does mean that most audiences will reject American Empire out of hand.

Not to be confused with at least one other recent film with a similar title, American Empire begins by tracing the history of tax policy stemming from the Federal Reserve Act. Patrick, who directed, photographed, edited, co-wrote and co-produced this seriously low-budget project, then makes the case that America has become an empire thanks to the corporations that run Washington via lobby power. Though this part of Patrick’s argument is not new, it at least makes sense and was at the heart of the 99% protests of last year.

But Patrick’s implications contain a central flaw: If we accept the fact that there is only a plutocracy in charge and that there are no differences between the two major political parties, then why should anyone left-of-center be at all pleased that Barack Obama was re-elected? According to Patrick, we shouldn’t be pleased—Mitt Romney would have been just as good or bad. But didn’t this thinking lead liberals to getting George W. Bush in 2000?

Patrick and some of her on-camera subjects, a mix of the erudite and the obnoxious, including Tariq Ali, Vandana Shiva, G. Edward Griffin, Maude Barlow, John Perkins, Gerald Celente, Jeffrey Smith, John Robbins and David Korten, seem to suggest that we need a Ralph Nadar type (along with a Facebook revolution) to lead us out of this predicament. No, Nadar isn’t interviewed or even mentioned (Patrick is smarter than to do that), but her film would make a great p.r. promotion piece for the next Nadar.

Patrick is correct about nearly all her concerns—insecticides poisoning our food (an outgrowth of the mega-farming industry), the health risks of genetically modified foods, oil dependency—but her implied solution is the problem. No Nadar type will ever be elected President and it is foolish to think one will. Electing—and putting public pressure on—liberal Democrats is a much more practical and immediate way to achieve the kind of sociopolitical and economic change American Empire so desires.

Back to Woodrow Wilson. Sure, Wilson had his flaws (and approving the Federal Reserve Act may or may not have been one of them), but he was an admirably liberal U.S. President. It seems downright ignorant in the post-Bush age to equate Wilson with the kind of right-wing failures we’ve experienced through the years, and the film’s section about creating a revolution comes across as quaint.

Sorry to say, while raising issues worth discussing—and some of the alarmism is valid—American Empire: An Act of Collective Madness allies itself with a dubious way to address these matters.