By Don Simpson | February 7, 2012
Director: Pete McGrain
Host: Woody Harrelson
Pete McGrain’s documentary, Ethos: A Time For Change examines the flaws in the U.S. political, financial, corporate and mass media structures — first and foremost, how these seemingly separate interests are intertwined in such a way that they work against our nation’s democratic and ecological interests. Essentially, these conflicts of interests and unregulated powers undermine the basic tenants of the U.S. Constitution. It is an Oligarchy of rich, white men who clandestinely rule this country, they control its politics and financial stability, and — most egregiously — they have gained control of the media (and we are not just talking about Fox News). It is this powerful elite class that has led our country into over-consumption and a constant state of war. As host Woody Harrelson explains, the way our systems are currently functioning practically guarantees our self-destruction as a society.
The question Ethos poses (and attempts to answer) is: How can we fix this? McGrain’s documentary is hopeful that regular citizens of the U.S. — you know, like you and me — are able to influence the decisions being made by the proverbial 1%. How? Well, the other 99% (me, you and everyone else we know) have the power of choosing what we purchase and from whom. If we stop buying products from corporations with questionable ethics, then those corporations will be forced to change. It is basic supply and demand economics, and we the people of the U.S. can control the demand. (This is quite similar to the Occupy Movement’s mantra of everyone withdrawing their funds from the evil Wall Street banks. It is our money that fuels their power; without our money, their power — theoretically — will diminish.)
Of course, most red-blooded (or, shall I say, “red state”) Americans will write all of this “mumbo jumbo” off as leftist conspiracy theories like something the Occupy Movement would dream up; but I would argue that there is a lot here for the Tea Party and Libertarians to latch onto as well. In fact, McGrain makes sure to use just as many soundbites from Ron Paul and he does from Noam Chomsky, lending Ethos a fair and balanced air about it. Of course since my political ideologies lean strongly towards the left, I admit that I may interpret Ethos to be fair and balanced, just as many on the right interpret Fox News to be fair and balanced. It is true that Ethos obviously has an agenda; McGrain and Harrelson try their darndest to shake the “leftist” stigma, but I am not sure that the message will be received as clearly by the right as it will be by the left. Of course, Ethos preaches that the U.S. is mostly comprised of centrists, in which case maybe more people will be open to receiving this message than I believe? (When it comes to politics, I am a glass half empty kind of guy — what can I say?)
I like what Ethos has to say and I like the solution that it suggests; however, the documentary plays to me like a low-budget PBS news program. Having Harrelson standing alone in front of a wall of television monitors as he lectures to us seems like an odd aesthetic to me. (It reminds me of the pledge drives at our local PBS station.) There are also a lot of very distracting edits in Harrelson’s monologues — and I cannot tell if McGrain was merely trying to tighten up the script or if Harrelson could not read the teleprompter without flubbing his lines. Additionally, the talking head interviews with Noam Chomsky (Manufacturing Dissent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media), Chalmers Johnson (Blowback: The Sorrows of Empire), Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States) and others just feel like a series of rapid-fire soundbites (many of which are from archive sources) that are drained of any resemblance of character or personality. That said — I can set aside my cinematic pickiness for this worthwhile message.
Ethos: A Time For Change is now available on DVD thanks to Cinema Libre Studio.