There are a multitude of approaches to criticism. One among them is seen less these days—the so called “new” school of criticism. This is the theory that we should evaluate a work of art only on its merits and not in relation to anything else. That is, one sees a painting and writes about what the eye captures and only that—not the history of the painter or the climate in which the work of art was created.
This is a very difficult approach in film criticism because the genre has so many moving parts, from the creative elements to the financial backers to the distributors and the many ways film is used to connect with an audience.
The French director Robert Bresson was famous for rarely using the same actors in different films because he didn’t want their persona to distract from the artistic work in which they appeared.
It’s fun to say, for instance, “this is a very different Tom Cruise than we saw in his earlier movies.” Why do we need to make these comparisons? Shouldn’t we be able to evaluate the Tom Cruise who appears in Mission Impossible without having to reference his performance in Risky Business?
I mention all of this because in the documentary film under review here, titled The Disrupted, I’m unsure how to measure the work. Should I judge it in isolation from or in juxtaposition to history and the political climate in which it is cast?
The former approach would be difficult because the film was clearly made to provoke a political and social response. But it’s a more palatable effort if the viewer tries to disregard the propaganda and focuses on the material only.
The Disrupted details the hardships of three people (and their families) having tough times in the United States economy of 2018 or 2019. The year is not specified exactly, but it is clearly pre-Covid as there is no mention of the pandemic and the subjects wear no masks or even seem aware of a budding health crisis.
Donn is a struggling cattle farmer in Kansas. He’s facing loss of land, declining income, and health problems. Cheryl is an Uber and Lyft driver feeling the gouge of the gig economy as its once great promise is squeezing the very people who made it possible. Pete is an ex-convict who turned his life around and worked for 3M for a dozen years. He has a wonderful family and a devoted wife, but when the 3M plant closes he must retrain. These trials test him and his marriage.
Oftentimes, this film feels less like a feature length documentary and more a 20-20 or Dateline NBC special, and that’s probably its strength. The Disrupted is well made and packaged, and the travails of all three subjects are compelling, but it never feels cinematic. This is not necessarily a negative, but it makes the movie’s content interesting and not its form.
In addition, unfortunately and perhaps ironically, Covid-19, disrupted the roll out of the film (due in virtual cinemas September 25th and VOD on October 13th). The Disrupted might be less impactful or simply seem out of date given what the nation has endured since March, but perhaps the documentary will strike a chord. It is a rendering of hard times, and have times been harder than the year 2020?
As much as I wanted to view the film in a vacuum, it was impossible. The truth is, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States economy was in a strong position. Thus, it felt misleading to take three individual stories in attempt to paint the era as being one of decline and despair.
One could take any period of economic growth (the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s) and cherry pick a few unfortunate stories. And vice versa for hard times. I’m sure there were some people who prospered during the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Even during the current year, which has seen massive job loss due to Coronavirus lockdowns, one could find a grocery store or gun store owner and frame those individuals as doing very well.
The tilt of The Disrupted is decidedly anti-corporate, and this bias can’t be sequestered. 3M lays people off. Uber and Lyft behave like ogres to their drivers. Small farmers are vanishing rapidly. The middle class is dying!
One is sympathetic, but I’ve heard this argument my entire adult life and here we still are. Do we want to give up ride sharing? All the products 3M makes? Economies ebb and flow for a variety of reasons. I’m sure the blacksmith was upset he no longer had horses to shoe, but did we stop the production of automobiles to save that sector of the economy?
As much as it made you care about its subjects, there were no solutions offered in The Disrupted. That may have made for tedious viewing, but anyone can say something is unfair. It didn’t feel like there was much behind the criticism of corporate America in the 21st century other than ‘it’s bad.’ This begs the question: what would be better? A more centralized economy? A return to traditional farming? Taxis only and no ride shares? A $20 minimum wage?
Despite this, the producers of The Disrupted were correct to curtail an arch assault on contemporary capitalism. That would have only come off as dishonest, Michael Moore-style hectoring. The makers of The Disrupted, in the tradition of new criticism, simply show us the struggles of three families and let those journeys stand with minimal editorializing.
I leave it to others how much they will watch The Disrupted with either a close reading of the film or an expansive one. Either perspective is valid but not without problems, both for audiences and the creators themselves.
Blast rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
DOCUMENTARY | ENGLISH | INDEPENDENT | NR | 90 MINUTES