By fashioning Naomi Klein's nonfiction book The Shock Doctrine into a feature-length documentary, multi-faceted British director Michael Winterbottom streamlines her arguments, and offers a rather compelling explanation of how the confluence of economic theory and secret CIA studies laid the foundation for the Bush administration's Iraq War battle plan.
The story starts in the '50s, when economist Milton Friedman puts forth a series of arguments that will eventually form the basis for Thatcher-, Reagan-, and Bush-era economic policies -- namely that the government shouldn't regulate business in any way whatsoever. At around the same time that Friedman begins to make a name for himself, the CIA conducts secret experiments to test the effects of electroshock and sensory deprivation on human beings. The movie argues that these two events are similar -- where Friedman wanted to shock entire economies, the CIA began to understand how individuals reacted to being in a constant state of shock.
Friedman's theories are first tested in Chile after a U.S.-backed coup led by Augusto Pinochet overthrows the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende, a period covered in depth by the movie. Winterbottom and company go on to explain how Friedman disciple Margaret Thatcher applied his principles to enact sweeping change in Britain during the '80s, drumming up a tidal wave of patriotism with the Falkland Islands War.
While the film offers a fascinating explanation of recent history, it really gels when highlighting some startling inconsistencies in the rhetoric of many politicians. The primary example of this is the argument that freedom and democracy will bring economic prosperity -- a fact undercut throughout the movie by showing how those policies have shrunk the middle class in every country that's adopted them. And the final third of the movie -- when we see footage of Iraqi prisoners in Guantanamo being treated exactly like the human guinea pigs in those early CIA experiments -- is a powerful and persuasive piece of activist documentary filmmaking.
While there are many people who just won't want to listen to what Winterbottom and Klein have to say, The Shock Doctrine will give those who have yet to make up their minds about Bush-era American foreign policy plenty to think about.