LOS ANGELES, May 1, (RTRS): Johan Grimonprez doesn’t want audiences to get out their handkerchiefs; he wants them to get out their protest signs, their megaphones and their voting ballots. Whether documentaries have that ability is sadly open for debate, but “Shadow World” Grimonprez’s superb, gut-punching exploration of the global arms trade is the sort of catalyst to energize politically-minded viewers. Flawlessly juggling an impressive array of talking heads with archival footage, the director (“Double Take”) aims his disgust at politicos, from Reagan to Obama, Blair to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and the billions invested in ensuring militarization and war never get put on ice. Smart, hard-hitting and possibly too intellectual for many, “Shadow World” deserves wide exposure at home and abroad.
Grimonprez bases his research on Andrew Feinstein’s 2011 book “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” bringing the South African author in as co-writer and talking head. Bookending the documentary is archival footage from the “war to end all wars”: ghostly black-and-white images of World War I soldiers in the trenches are accompanied by archival interviews with such noted veterans as Henry Williamson, George Ashurst and Smedley D. Butler, with author Williamson recalling the “Christmas Truce” of 1914, when soldiers from both sides spontaneously co-mingled with the so-called “enemy.” Opening with this footage is Grimonprez’s way of saying war is not necessary, yet the decision-making has never been in the hands of foot soldiers.
Such is the documentary’s nod to early 20th century history: from there it jumps to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan had Margaret Thatcher arrange massive arms deals with Saudi Arabia so that Israel wouldn’t accuse the US of collaborating with the enemy. This, according to “Shadow World,” was the crucial moment when Saudi influence began its staggering ascent. There are a number of nemeses here, but none as adept as the Saudis in manipulating world powers to ensure monumental kick-backs.
That’s probably the biggest takeaway, along with the harsh realization that governments are heavily invested in ensuring the “war on terror” remains an undefinable state of semi-emergency with no end in sight. According to the film, the reason is simple: War is lucrative, especially for lobbyists and politicians who ensure the arms trade remains a feeding frenzy with no oversight. It backs that point with mind-boggling figures: an $87 million slush fund from Britain’s BAE arms manufacturer to Saudi beneficiaries (Maggie’s son Mark Thatcher got more than $17 million for that one), plus a $1.5 billion bribe to Prince Bandar bin Sultan; $10 billion paid by South Africa for arms they certainly didn’t need, with $300 million as bribes to ANC officials; etc., etc.
Much of this information has been published in the British newspaper “The Guardian” (journalist David Leigh is among those interviewed), but of course documentaries have a particularly potent way of conveying information when done well, as is the case here. Tony Blair comes off as little more than a slippery arms salesman (Grimonprez doesn’t point out the laughable irony of Blair’s post-ministerial position as “peace envoy”), while the portrayals of Reagan, Thatcher and Bush make them out as war criminals.
“Shadow World” does a far better job nailing Donald Rumsfeld than “The Unknown Known” and accomplishes the take-down in a more succinct manner, showing how he and Dick Cheney have reaped the rewards of their time in the private sector with companies like Halliburton, which is in the business to ensure that wars continue; Casper Weinberger’s association with Bechtel could equally have been included. Barack Obama is also implicated, especially for signing off on targeted assassinations, along with billions of dollars in drone contracts.
Grimonprez and his editors are exceptionally clever at clearly presenting information and then following through with the consequences, so a discussion of C.I.A. funded right-wing coups leads to an interview with El Salvadorean activist Marta Benavides, who talks in concrete terms about the results, followed by a section on the Iran-Contra scandal to help connect the dots. Two talking heads are especially chilling in very different ways: One is jailed arms dealer Riccardo Privitera, a self-aggrandizing sleazeball fond of making bald-faced statements with the incontrovertible ring of truth. The other is “New York Times” war correspondent Chris Hedges, who movingly speaks of the psychological trauma from seeing so much killing. He also offers one of the most accurate statements about the crisis in the Arab world: “The disease of permanent war is what’s destroyed the Middle East, not Islamic fundamentalism.” As the documentary clearly demonstrates, the US and UK keep ensuring that this particular disease remains incurable.
Sir Richard Branson’s out-sized hankering for adventure is matched only by his talent for self-promotion. “Don’t Look Down” focuses on Branson as balloonist, using previously unseen footage of his daredevil hot air flights together with archival footage and interviews with the major players, and while the achievements have an undeniable thrill, the documentary needs trimming. Director Daniel Gordon, best known for his superb North Korean trilogy, seems to be a helmer for hire here, delivering a solid, and solidly engaging film that nevertheless feels like an extended promo for the Branson brand. TV and streaming sites will be the likely takers.
Who would deny the romance of a hot air balloon? Their majestic beauty is an understandable lure, so combined with the challenge of breaking world records (not to mention the nice big expanse of canvas crying out for the Virgin logo), they seem custom designed to tickle Branson’s fancy. Plus the timing was right in 1987, just three years after he launched Virgin Airlines, to pull off a fantastic stunt guaranteed to get his company’s name in all the papers. Branson hadn’t flown a hot air balloon before, but he brought in balloon pilot Per Lindstrom and set off to cross the Atlantic.
“Don’t Look Down” details every step of the journey, from balloon construction to the flight itself. Near disaster dogged their path as they crossed the ocean from Maine to Scotland, and Lindstrom nearly drowned, but the record was broken and, most importantly, Branson’s feat was on everyone’s lips. Two years later a larger challenge beckoned: the Pacific. The first attempt was a non-starter but in 1991 Branson and Lindstrom managed the impossible by flying from Japan to Canada in 46 hours. Much to the businessman’s chagrin, their achievement was overshadowed by news of the First Gulf War (it’s terribly provoking when pesky military conflicts hog one’s limelight, but certain things really are out of the hands of mere mortals).
Much of the in-gondola footage shot from the balloons truly is spectacular, and Gordon does a fine job building momentum by balancing this with news footage and talking heads ranging from balloon experts to the indispensable weather consultant to Branson’s proud yet reserved mother. However, there’s an inevitable sense of repetition, and especially the failed Pacific attempt could be more tightly retold. Occasional dramatic recreations are unfortunate and threaten to turn the documentary into History Channel filler, and while the use of b&w looks nice, it serves no purpose apart from varying the visuals a bit.