Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 4, 2011

Malefactors of great wealth in three new films

Filed under: capitalist pig,Film,financial crisis,oil — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Regular readers of my film reviews know that I do not tend to hype a film. Except for a comment like “a must see”, I generally prefer understatement. That being said, I strongly urge New Yorkers to go see the documentary “The Big Fix” that opened on Friday at the AMC Loews Village Theater. Co-directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, a husband and wife team, it is a searing investigation of BP’s ongoing trashing of the Gulf of Mexico that has largely gone unreported since the supposed capping of the Deepwater Horizon well and the cleaning up of the Gulf.

As someone who generally keeps up with environmentalist issues, I sat watching a press screener with my mouth agape at the horrors perpetrated by an out-of-control oil company and their paid servants in Congress. No other film have I seen in the past five years or so has left me with the feeling that the people running the country—both in government and in corporate boardrooms—are no different than the mafia. In fact we might be better off if the mafia was running the country since these gangsters at least have a feudal sense of noblesse oblige.

Josh Tickell is a Cajun, a descendant of French settlers in Louisiana, who grew up to become a film maker rather than a musician, cook, or oil field worker that are the typical jobs that members of this ethnic group take on. But despite his achievements as a documentary filmmaker, his heart is obviously with the working people of Louisiana, who are being screwed royally by BP.

The film begins with a historical survey of Louisiana that establishes its status as a kind of internal colony of the U.S. With the stranglehold of oil companies on the state’s political machinery, those in the “99 percent” have much more in common with the people of Iran under the Shah than they do with most Americans. As the film points out, British Petroleum was a key player in Iran until the 1979 revolution and now views Louisiana as just another source of superprofits, whatever happens to the environment and the local population being utterly immaterial.

There is some fascinating archival footage of Governor Huey Long, who was dubbed a “fascist” when I was a high school student. “The Big Fix” makes a convincing case that Long only became demonized when he demanded that oil companies doing business in Louisiana pay their fair share of taxes.

The Tickells decided to go down to Louisiana to make a film after becoming convinced that BP was involved in a cover-up. The film combines their own cloak-and-dagger filming of the company’s deceitful practices as well as interviews with economists and scientists who make the case that the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead now, despite BP’s nauseating commercials about people coming down to enjoy the seafood and the beaches.

The gist of their investigation reveals that the waters appear clean because BP has been spraying enormous amounts of Corexit, a chemical dispersant used widely by Exxon and BP after one of their disasters. The purpose of Corexit is to reduce oil slicks into tiny droplets that sink beneath the surface of the water, thus making it appear as if it is clean. However, small fish ingest the chemical and are then eaten by others higher up on the food chain. As one long-time fisherman in the area told the Tickells, dolphins can be seen coughing as they rise to the surface of the water.

Whole coughing dolphins is an image that is hard to shake from your mind, what is even harder to shake is the sight of ulcerated skin that is fairly endemic to people living near the waters. So pervasive are the toxic chemicals used in the “clean up” that Rebecca Tickell became permanently affected herself and will probably never enjoy a complete recovery from various illnesses, including the lingering effects of chemically-induced pneumonia.

The final moments of the film are devoted to an exploration of how BP gets away with its criminal activity, which involves many of the same themes raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It pays millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike in order to get them to serve as lackeys. What is even more disheartening is to see how compromised the university system is in Louisiana. Typical is Ed Stapleton, a professor emeritus at LSU who was initially alarmed by the impact of the BP spill but after the company lavished 10 million dollars on the school he became a fixture on shows like David Letterman giving jocular remarks on how clean the waters were. The only parallel is watching some of the nuclear industry functionaries in Japan announcing to their countrymen that there was nothing to worry about.

“The Big Fix” is the real deal. It does not spare any politician or corporate functionary and goes after Obama with the kind of fury that I have not seen in any documentary since this rotten tool of corporate America took office. The film relies on Chris Hedges to help make their case and he is in fine fettle. Don’t miss this one. It will remind you why you became a socialist and if you are still a liberal, it will turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary.

Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.

Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six years tacked on.

Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.

The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.

The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.

Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.

I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a subsequent issue:

The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of ‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer reliant on loans or approbation from the West.

Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that would secure its survival in the longer term.

Turning from documentary to fiction, I can recommend “Margin Call”, now playing in theaters all across the U.S. as the best dramatization of the 2008” subprime meltdown whose effects are still being felt.

By contrast, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Wall Street is incoherent trash and the HBO mixture of fiction and documentary titled “Too Big to Fail”, starring William Hurt as Henry Paulson, is best described as a whitewash of bankster malfeasance. With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking whether he had anything to worry about with the OWS movement, this is a story about the public-mindedness of Paulson and company who saved the country from going under. It was hard to take this seriously when the HBO movie aired. It is even harder now in light of a Bloomberg News report:

The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.

The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.

Directed by J.C. Chandor (his first film), “Margin Call” takes place in a 24 hour span as a financial analyst—an MIT graduate with an engineering degree–discovers that his firm’s collateralized mortgage holdings were likely to bankrupt the company given the direction of the market.

The CEO, played to a tee by Jeremy Irons, orders the traders to dump the subprime holdings on unsuspecting customers no matter the long-term consequences. Playing his second in command, Kevin Spacey bridles at this proposal and only accedes under pressure. This was the only thing in the film that did not quite ring true. If you get to be second in command at a place like this, clearly modeled after Goldman-Sachs, you sold your soul to the devil long before becoming that powerful.

The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.

That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.


  1. Re Khodorkovsky, I wonder if you ever saw or reviewed “Tycoon: A New Russian,” a 2002 film that fictionalizes the rise and fall of Boris Berezovsky. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B00E4D81F39F930A25755C0A9659C8B63

    Comment by Fred Murphy — December 4, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

  2. I’ll take a look at it sometime but not for a while. I am deluged with screeners for my awards meeting next weekend. Most of it crap…

    Comment by louisproyect — December 4, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  3. The fact that Khodorkovsky has never apparently gone for the ‘lavish’ lifestyle (does he only have 3 private jets?) shows what an inhuman calculating piece of crap he is.

    Well done Putin for banging him up, though hopefully Putin’s days are coming to an end as protests against his rule increase.

    Comment by Steve — December 5, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  4. Didn’t Long start cozying up to Father Coughlin ? Seems pretty fascistic to me. National socialists have never like finance capital, and in fact usually nationalize it. This is just because they are representing a different ruling class constituency. That’s the problem with attacking Wall Street specifically, finance capital and industrial capital are two sides to the same coin.

    Comment by purple — December 6, 2011 @ 12:22 am

  5. If you go back to my post on the Bonus Army, you will note that the author of the article it is largely based on refers to the VFW and Smedley Butler as left critics of FDR. He also includes Huey Long and Father Coughlin. One of these days I might read a bio of Long that dispenses with the basically conservative politics of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”. Interestingly enough, the movie version that starred Broderick Crawford as a Huey Long type figure was directed by Robert Rossen, a CPer. Ironically they were drawn to Warren’s novel even though he was a Southern Agrarian writer along with all the other reactionaries like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom. I’d take Huey Long over these characters any day of the week.

    The Southern Agrarians bemoaned the increasing loss of Southern identity and culture to industrialization. They believed that the traditional agrarian roots of the United States, which dated back to the nation’s founding in the 18th century (with many of America’s most important Founding Fathers being farmers), were important to its nature. Their manifesto was a critique of the rapid industrialization and urbanization during the first few decades of the 20th century in the southern United States and elsewhere. It posited an alternative based on a return to the more traditionally rural and local/regional culture, and agrarian American values. The group opposed the rapid and destabilizing changes in the U.S. that were leading it to become more urban, national/international, and industrial. Because the book was published at the opening (1930) of what would eventually become the Great Depression, some viewed it as particularly prescient. The book’s stance was anti-communist.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 6, 2011 @ 1:05 am

  6. Did I spot Greg Palast in The Big Fix? He’s a Huey Long fan. Beside Robert Penn Warren there Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, which the Federal Government under FDR was all to happy to stage all over the country.

    Comment by Rojo — December 6, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

  7. […] Malefactors of great wealth in three new films: 1. "The Big Fix": a documentary on the cover-up of BP’s continuing crimes in the Gulf of Mexico. AN ABSOLUTE MUST-SEE. 2. "Khodorkovsky": a documentary about the imprisoned Russian oligarch. 3. "Margin Call": a fictional film on the 2008 financial crisis that is head and shoulders over everything else. full: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/malefactors-of-great-wealth-in-three-new-films/ […]

    Pingback by GPJA #406: Auck Council v Occupy Auck 9.30am Thurs / Sat March to Defend GI “stop the Evictions” 12 noon Britomart « GPJA's Blog — December 7, 2011 @ 5:49 am

  8. “With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking…”

    I don’t understand why Sorkin was stupid for writing that article. Can someone please explain this comment?

    Comment by Calvin Miner — December 9, 2011 @ 12:51 am

  9. […] For J.C. Chandor, Redford’s Sundance Film Festival marked the auspicious beginning of what is likely to be a great career. In 2011 the festival premiered his “Margin Call”, a film about the 2008 financial crisis that I described as follows: […]

    Pingback by Gravity; All is Lost | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 17, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

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