"Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times" is a rather grand title for a bare-bones 74-minute documentary that should have been called "What Noam's Thinking Now." But because what Noam is thinking is always of interest, this brief and reverential film is as well.
Chomsky is one of America's most controversial pundits, an iconoclast and provocateur who is often simultaneously praised and damned for his uncompromisingly radical political views. The New York Times, for instance, said he was "arguably the most important intellectual alive but maddeningly simple-minded."
Chomsky deserves a more thoughtful documentary than "Power and Terror," and in fact he got it in 1993's "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," a two-hour, 47-minute intellectual epic that took four years to make.
The current film, by contrast, was more of a spur-of-the-moment deal. John Junkerman, an American documentary filmmaker living in Japan, got the idea soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center to bring Chomsky's perspectives on Sept. 11 to a wider audience in Japan, which is why there's Japanese rock music on the soundtrack and some of Chomsky's comments touch on that country.
"Power and Terror" is composed of a single, extended Chomsky interview intercut with scenes of him speaking to audiences in Berkeley and Palo Alto, getting rock-star treatment from adoring audiences as he talks about the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Though he deplores the attacks, Chomsky believes they are historic "not because of the scale but because of who the victims are." Imperial centers, in his words, have traditionally been immune. Because he considers any violence against civilians to be terrorism, he views the U.S. as "one of the worst terrorist states in the world" and sees the World Trade Center attack as more or less a case of the chickens coming home to roost. "We can't comprehend," he says bluntly, "applying to ourselves the standards we apply to others."
Because Chomsky is so lucid and because his point of view is so rarely heard, "Power and Terror" is a stimulating experience as the man lets us know, for instance, that he considers speaking truth to power to be a waste of time because power already knows the truth.
But it's instructive that the most involving scenes in "Power and Terror" involve Chomsky interacting with post-speech questioners, often gently puncturing the balloons of the more doctrinaire. It's a situation that points up the film's main flaw, the absence of other voices.
Though it's mind-boggling to put Chomsky and producer Robert Evans, the subject of "The Kid Stays in the Picture," into the same sentence, perhaps the only thing the two of them have in common is that their films would benefit from having someone else along for the ride. From a cinematic point of view, two sides of an issue are always better than one.
'Power and Terror'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Siglo Ltd. production, released by First Run Features. Director John Junkerman. Producer Yamagami Tetsujiro. Cinematographer Otsu Koshiro. Editors John Junkerman, Hata Takeshi. Music Imawano Kiyoshiro. Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 478-6379.