Documentary Review: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not one of those who subscribe to the belief that documentary films should present all sides to the story in a “just the facts, ma’am” style. In fact, I respect a filmmaker who is so passionate about a topic that he/she enthusiastically attempts to overwhelm the viewer with “proof” that their opinion is the definitive truth and no further debate is needed. Here, renowned director Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, 2010) supports comedian/actor/activist Russell Brand in his agenda to educate the masses on the evil of big banks and rich people, and the need for re-distribution of wealth.

Now that agenda may seem a bit odd coming from an admitted rich guy, but in fact, Brand’s professional success lends some credibility to his argument … or at least it’s a different approach than having a group of people living in poverty talk about how they got screwed by “the man”.

To say that Brand dumbs-down his explanation is certainly an understatement. To emphasize this, there are a couple of segments where he utilizes elementary level students to differentiate between rich and poor – what’s fair and what’s not. Concentrating mostly on the British economy, while also noting the similarities to the United States 2008 crash, Brand makes the argument that the turning point was approximately 35 years ago as Margaret Thatcher assumed power and Free Market Capitalism took over. It’s a bizarre point coming from a native of a country whose Monarchs (not known for their “fairness”) date back for centuries. However, this is an example of the keep-it-simple approach in getting the masses to join his quest.

Borrowing a page from Michael Moore’s long-successful script, Brand presents the big banks and the super rich as the villains of society. It’s a common theme and one that’s pretty easy to agree with … the banks were bailed out, and then proceeded to pay their upper management huge bonuses. The viable argument is, why don’t they pay “us” back? Brand attempts to follow Moore’s lead again (while referencing Joseph Campbell) by walking into the banks and asking to see the CEO’s. These attempts fall flat, and leave us with Brand wise-cracking while bystanders try to figure out if it’s all a prank.

The most effective sequences involve Brand walking the streets of Grays London where he was raised. His discussions with the locals are real, and infinitely more enlightening than his storming into bank lobbies. The statistics don’t lie – the rich are getting richer, while the rest of society struggles. George Carlin said it best … the poor are needed to keep the middle class motivated to work so the rich can benefit. Brand also rails against legal tax evasion via offshore accounts – especially in Grand Cayman. He lobbies for those accounts to be taxed and the money returned to the country of origin.

Most of Brand’s mission is preaching the importance of fairness, and the claim is made that by definition, capitalism is the inequality of power. Whether you agree with him or not, Brand is to be respected for using his celebrity status for a cause much more important than the best table in a restaurant, or courtside seats to a game. His simple-is-best approach carries right through to the end where he does offer up his list of recommendations to create a more fair system. If his simple and sometimes funny approach allows more people to enter into discussions, then his cause is worthwhile, even if his recommendations are a bit lacking in substance and depth.

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