Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

2004-07-23 (Limited release)

Those who haven’t made a job or hobby out of keeping track of the media will recognize only a few of the many talking heads in Orwell Rolls in His Grave. But at least one is quite familiar: the rabble-rousing Michael Moore, who pops up more than once giving a speech in what looks like a college auditorium. American society, Moore observes, is making a mistake videotaping itself as extensively as it does by way of the mass media, because we’re leaving a record of ourselves — a record, Moore implies, largely controlled and orchestrated by media elites. FOX News and CNN are jointly deciding what is going to be handed down for posterity. “We’ve got to leave a note behind and explain ourselves,” Moore concludes, “’cause we’re going to look like assholes.”

Given Moore’s acute awareness of how U.S. society is currently eating away at its own (and everybody else’s) future, you’d think he’d be the last person to assume that there’ll be a posterity — or that if there is, its historians will find our neo-robber baron era of much interest. Still, his assessment summarizes at once what’s excellent about Orwell Rolls and also the documentary’s biggest problem. Like Moore, director Robert Kane Pappas is commendably courageous in confronting his topic: the pro-corporate and big-money bias of today’s news media, which have largely abdicated their responsibility to act as a check on federal power and are instead more like a fourth branch of government.

But Moore also speaks to a historical concern, an awareness of past and future that, to be fair, Moore himself only engages in perfunctorily. While Pappas and Moore are making a valuable contribution to contemporary discourse, both polemicists would benefit from delving into U.S. history in greater depth, in order to better imagine the prospects for the nation’s future.

If Fahrenheit 9/11 establishes its preoccupation with the present day by grounding itself in the 2000 election, Orwell Rolls opens with a personal narrative on the part of the director, set in 1980 over the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis. Struck by the hyped-up media coverage of the hostage episode, Pappas interviewed Peter Mitchelmore of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Mitchelmore is unusually candid about the nature of the business he’s in — we later learn because he’s about to leave the Post under less than cordial circumstances — and when he talks about cynicism in the news industry, it comes off as a confession, the tattletale press tattling on itself.

Mitchelmore’s focus in Orwell is the media’s propensity for sensationalism and its interest in the “never-ending story,” a perpetual crisis (e.g., the Iran affair) designed to sell papers or keep people vegging out in front of the tube. (Pappas seems to think this phenomenon began with the hostage crisis of ’79 to ’81, suggesting he’s forgotten about, say, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby or the press frenzy surrounding Bonnie and Clyde.)

Pappas’ second point is well taken, that the hostage crisis — like the 2000 election — demonstrates a tendency for suspicious events to accompany right-wing ascensions to power. In 1981, said event was the astounding coincidence later dubbed the “October surprise”: the release of the Iran hostages mere moments after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Conservatives tend to attribute this to recognition among the Iranian militants that Reagan wasn’t going to appease them the way Carter presumably had. But Pappas tells a different story by way of author Gary Sick.

An ex-member of the National Security Council who testified in front of Congress in 1992, Sick wrote a book, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, arguing that higher-ups in the Reagan campaign had the Iranian militants hold the hostages until Reagan took power. Orwell Rolls spends some time on the details of Sick’s allegations, which center around a series of supposed meetings between big Republican players — including CIA spook and Reagan campaign manager William Casey, as well as George H.W. Bush — and Iranian officials in Paris, and a shipment of arms from Israel to Iran in 1980 that Sick contends was a payment to the Iranians for holding on to the hostages. The testimony of one of the hostages, speaking in voiceover accompanying archive news footage, reminds us why this allegation is so serious. “I don’t want to believe it,” the hostage says, as, onscreen, the camera lingers on a blindfolded captive, consumed with fear. “It’s too painful to think about.” This is incontrovertibly Orwell‘s most powerful moment.

A review of Orwell Rolls in the Washington City Paper observes that Pappas doesn’t actually bring any new evidence to justify rehashing the October surprise allegations, which is basically true. Nevertheless, the circumstantial case surrounding the October Surprise is troubling, particularly considering the Reagan administration’s record after it came to power. (That military arms were used as bargaining chips in the subsequent Iran-Contra scandal, of course, suggests a kind of modus operandi.)

In any case, “proof” is scarcely a matter of much consequence in mainstream political discourse these days. This is the lesson of the Bush 43 administration’s invasion of Iraq, still “justified” although the reasons for waging it have been rather short of proved. In the wake of the Iraq war, questions of proof are instead bound up in questions of power; the latter substitutes for and simulates the former. Conversely, to lack political power — as Pappas submits the American people at large do, living in a post-democratic society where the media function in collusion with government — is also to lack the ability to prove. Alas, conjecture must suffice.

The stylistic parallels between Pappas and Michael Moore are evident; Pappas even orchestrates an encounter with police on the streets of Washington, a moment reminiscent of Moore’s altercation outside the Saudi embassy in Fahrenheit 9/11. Pappas also shares Moore’s ahistorical myopia, and Orwell too often comes off as apocalyptic to the point of sensationalism. Pappas seems to be crying out in a panic that the West is in danger of lapsing into totalitarianism (much of the soundtrack is given over to inordinately spooky horror movie music) and so never acknowledges that in many ways, the idealized past wasn’t so much different from today. He spends a lot of time assailing Rupert Murdoch without ever mentioning William Randolph Hearst, for instance, and the movie ultimately suffers from this lack of a broader perspective.