Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"shouting fire: stories from the edge of free speech" documentary review

last night i watched "shouting fire: stories from the edge of free speech," a documentary that premiered at the sundance film festival last year. while the premise - our civil liberties have been under assault since 9/11 - is facile, vapid, and rote, don't pass up the film. our first amendment rights have been under assault continually from the birth of the republic: check out the alien and sedition act that opened the 19th century, or the criminal prosecutions of those who spoke out against the first world war, or the clamp-down on vietnam war protesters. what makes "shouting fire" well-worth watching is the important history lessons it brings to life.

politics aside, it has an obvious leftist bias, everyone must fight for his freedom of expression - or risk losing it through indifference. the irony here is the documentary unintentionally highlights the evils of political correctness. anytime someone has her right to speak curtailed - regardless of the undoubtedly pure motives of the censor - we all lose (it may only be a matter of time before the wheel eventually turns to your out-dated view of the world). "silence is the enemy," to borrow a line from the new green day album.

the high point of liz garbus' documentary is the interview she does with her father, first amendment attorney martin garbus (interspersed throughout the film). his comments on (and the archival footage of) the pentagon papers case, alone, bring to life a seminal moment in first amendment jurisprudence. his eyewitness account of how the documents found their way into print, followed by his recount of the question and answer at the supreme court at oral argument (on whether to restrain further publication) was riveting. this segment was reason enough to watch the film!

the familiar complaints from the left (to support the premise of the post 9/11 apocalypse) played out with vignettes of the persecution of ward churchill, the lost principal-ship of debbie almontaser, and the wholesale arrest of protesters at the 2004 republican convention in nyc. while these are legitimate grievances, the brief is just as easily made in a non-partisan way. that approach, given political speech is most often the target of suppression, would have made this film an even more powerful viewing experience.

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