Shadows of Liberty
Three stars out of five
Starring: Julian Assange, Robert Baer, Kristina Borjesson
Directed by: Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Running time: 93 minutes
Parental advisory: mature theme
If you can get past the Twilight Zone voiceover steeped in conspiracy-theory cadences, there’s a lot to admire about Shadows of Liberty, Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s non-fiction look at modern media.
Not only does it explore and recap some of the most defining events of the past two decades, it connects the dots between the Reagan-era’s desire to deregulate the corporate landscape and the workaday lives of committed journalists.
That may seem like an almost impossible connection to make with any credibility. In fact, when this movie opens with a history of the 1990s CBS News investigation into Nike manufacturing plants in Asia, reporter Roberta Baskin says she never felt controlled or silenced by her corporate owners — until she exposed sweat shop sub-contracting by the world’s biggest maker of runners.
Baskin, who was CBS News’ chief correspondent from 1992 to 1997, aired the first story about Nike’s labour practices and “the phones lit up.” The story sparked a groundswell of public concern over exploitation and prompted boycotts of Nike stores across the U.S.
Baskin says she was incredibly proud of the work because it had a real world effect. Moreover, her bosses at CBS saw her as a hero for boosting ratings and breaking news. They even asked her to produce a follow-up report. And then CBS entered negotiations with the International Olympic Committee to become the official broadcaster of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Shortly thereafter, the Nike story was spiked and Baskin lost her job as chief correspondent.
Not only that, every CBS on-air personality who was assigned to the games had to wear Nike clothing with an oversized ‘swoosh.’
Baskin was outraged at the obvious conflict, but these days the idea of a broadcaster wearing logo-laden merchandize hardly seems notable, let alone objectionable.
Slowly but surely, we’ve watched the clean line constitutional between the press and the institutions of power become increasingly fuzzy, and because it’s been so gradual and seemingly necessary to preserve the very existence of the fourth estate, there’s been very little objection on the part of journalists themselves.
Tremblay even suggests a wholesale case of denial in the wake of declining profits, newspaper layoffs and a media consolidation that’s left many newsmen and newswomen jobless.
The movie goes on to dig out some truly heartbreaking cases of journalists who went to the mat to report the truth about government corruption, only to end up ostracized and unemployed.
The most compelling case is that of Pulitzer-winner Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the Iran-Contra scandal and its connection to crack cocaine in the U.S. in a series of articles called “Dark Alliance.”
Webb claimed the Reagan administration turned a blind eye to huge crack imports in the U.S. in order help the Contras raise money, and take down a democratically elected leader in Nicaragua.
Webb was ridiculed by the White House, who painted the veteran reporter as a crackpot with an agenda. Webb stood by his story, but when his paper turned its back on his reportage and other reporters sided with the Reagan administration, Webb became suicidal and eventually took his own life, on April 10, 2004.
We hear other stories along the same lines: Journalists putting themselves in harm’s way to tell the truth, only to have their stories spiked or altered by their corporate owners concerned about the bottom line and advertising revenues.
Because Tremblay gets the bona fide players — from Baskin to former CBS News executives and producers — the film has real teeth. This isn’t just a bunch of activists opining on the importance of a free press to the efficacy of a true democracy: It’s about real people, and what happened to real journalism over the past 20 years.
As Tremblay presents the facts, the most disturbing truth isn’t the slow death of the mainstream media as social watchdog, it’s the fact that so much of what we see and hear doesn’t seem so offensive to us 20 years hence.
So what if networks want to brand their on-air personalities and sign a cross-pollination deal with marketing firms? It’s much-needed revenue for a flagging bottom line. And so what if stories about government whistleblowers get buried on the inside pages while celebrity gossip makes the front page? It’s what the public wants.
No wonder Shadows of Liberty feels like a cold glass of water in the face: It’s not what we want to hear, and it’s not all that much fun to watch. A rather dry and somewhat preacher-like tone makes the whole thing feel like a lecture about things we already know.
Moreover, it features politicized talking heads such as WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as well as Hollywood celebrities such as Danny Glover — whose presence in the film remains entirely unexplained.
And yet, as much as we’d like to tune it out and write it off as alarmist activism, Shadows of Liberty takes a hole punch to the reams of random evidence documenting the decline of a free press, and creates a dark narrative that begins with a story about sneakers and takes us all the way to current legislation surrounding the Internet.
As we used to say back in the day: it’s a grey page, but a good read.