Weapons of Mass Discussion

Bumrushed onto American screens like late-breaking news, the Japanese TV documentary Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times is a relatively thin slice of Chomskiana—a chapter from any of the man's many interview volumes or even an hour of his C-SPAN dialogues has more political substance. The movie's sudden appearance, on the other hand, is nothing if not an act of film-exhibition intervention, mere weeks before the ostensible beginning of a nonsensical war that, like the past five decades' worth of U.S.-led conflicts, reflects only the self-preservative instincts of power.

In taped footage shot as late as this past May, Chomsky at 73 is as calm and quick-minded as ever—ideally, he'd have his own weekly PBS hour of cant to quote casualty figures and burn through the many layers of carefully engineered U.S. propaganda. (As it is, it's surprising even this most media-loathed of dissidents hasn't been more tele-visible since his mini-transcript 9-11 became a best-seller.) The uninitiated might find it the best sawbuck they've spent all year.

Chomsky himself hardly warrants a cult of personality—uncharismatic and reserved, the man works hard at being merely the bearer of bad news. At the same time, despite his reputation as a massively endowed brainiac or "political philosopher," Chomsky rarely writes or says anything that requires a Ph.D. to grasp. Rather, he is a gimlet-eyed moralist with instant recall to whom ethical ground, high and low, is earned by action, not rhetoric.

A conscientious reading of newspapers (including the business press, where Corporate America dares to be honest about its motives and tactics) is often all Chomsky requires to divine what's realpolitik for the average world citizen. This accumulation of cold facts results in an almost childishly simple perspective: the survival and growth of power, namely American, leads eventually to the bulldozing of innocent citizenry. In the past year, his position translates to questioning how the U.S. can be engaged in a "war on terrorism" when the mountains of civilian corpses we've left in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Mideast and western Africa qualify our most sanctimonious of nations as Champion Bullgoo se Terrormonger.

Discussing Sept. 11, 2001, in Power and Terror, Noam fires his rocket launcher from the hip: "This is a historic event, but unfortunately not because of the scale or the nature of the atrocity but because of who the victims were." (The irony marinating the "historic" is typically acidic.)

American-born director John Junkerman keeps the proceedings determinedly no-frills (in contrast to the distractingly spiffy 1992 doc Manufacturing Consent) and only glancingly hagiographic, focusing on taped lectures from Berkeley to the Bronx, and on fresh interviews. Chomsky just talks, about the deeply scarred Central American perspective on Sept. 11, the Eisenhower administration's documented understanding of the Arab world's justified U.S.-hatred, the hypocrisy of Turkey's dedication to anti-terrorism, the press blackout on the 40th anniversary of our initial assault on South Vietnam, the fact that the torture of 50,000 or so Palestinians has been paid for by American tax dollars, etc.

Comparing U.S. slaughter abroad to the al-Qaida attacks, Chomsky simply asks us, "If one is right, why is the other wrong?" As he points out, the president's fave philosopher, Jesus, would've had to ask the same question.

Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times was directed by John Junkerman and produced by Tetsujiro Yamagami. Now playing at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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