Documentary film often hopes to ignite passion not only in its audience but also in its subjects. Whether it be The gaze of silenceFrom remorseless murderers being grilled by their former victim or Errol Morris’ multiple efforts to bring about new intellectual or emotional realizations in his studies of solitary figures, there is often an opportunity for reflection on the part of those whose lives are analyzed. This does not always happen (in the case of Morris’ The known unknown, about Donald Rumsfeld, he really did not happen), and it is far from necessary. But it’s an appealing thought for directors, that they can end their feature-length investigations with hard evidence that the subject matter landed somewhere different from where it started, to better match the viewer’s hoped-for journey.
Unfortunately, you can’t force such a moment, and that’s where Charlie Siskel American anarchist turns short. The film’s subject is William Powell, the man who wrote the iconic how-to guide The Anarchist Cookbook, a cult text famous for promoting the revolutionary overthrow of the powers that be and providing pragmatic blueprints for creating the necessary weapons, such as homemade dynamite. Powell wrote the tract more than 40 years ago, when he was just 19. he doesn’t feel or won’t admit that the back half of his film becomes a misguided reprimand. The “Say you’re sorry!” Siskel’s unspoken lingers on for much of the final act, making the proceedings so cumbersome that Powell is eventually forced to call him himself, accusing the director of trying to coerce him into saying something he doesn’t. don’t say. Powell is right, and the last part of the film recalls the scene in Bowling for Columbine (which Siskel produced) where Michael Moore shames an elderly and sick Charlton Heston, but with even less motivation, as Powell has already given the director most of what he wants. (He also gave the world this: The author published an editorial in The Guardian in 2013 denounce The Anarchist Cookbook.)
It’s only through Powell’s own rhetoric that the film succeeds to the extent that it does. In an effort to draw the audience to his side, Siskel opens the film with some questionable explanations from Powell. The author will read an excerpt from Recipe book, then tripping over himself trying to explain how he didn’t want people to use him improperly. It makes him look guilty, and the film manages to extract real pathos from that evasive introduction. We are taken on a tour of Powell’s life, first through his political awareness at a young age and the writing of the notorious book, which contains information as explosive as recipes for making bombs. He’s had a brief burst of stardom since the tract was published and (by his own estimate) over $40,000 in royalties, a sizeable sum at the time. However, he quickly drifted away from the book, becoming a teacher and devoting his life to traveling the world and helping at-risk children, often in poor and needy communities and countries, about as close to an apology of a lifetime through good works as possible. considered. He and his wife, Orchan, now live a quiet, isolated life in France, trying not to let the negative impact of Powell’s youthful radicalism haunt their present.
But what begins as an interesting look at a man who has singularly inspired many violent perpetrators becomes an unnecessarily hectoral judgment of someone who has already been punished for his youthful bravado. (Powell has been denied many jobs over the years due to people reposting his authorship of the Recipe book.) Time and time again, Siskel cites school shootings, acts of terrorism, and other tragedies in an attempt to force Powell to say he is somehow at fault. But as Orchan points out, her husband is not responsible for these deaths, at least not in a direct way. He repeatedly states that he regrets making information that was already publicly available even more publicly available, but it’s far from having blood on his hands. In an interview, Powell draws an analogy to gun makers, then immediately disavows it as a poor equivalence, though she points out how even less overt her own contribution to violence is. Thanks to Siskel’s nagging, those early shots of equivocal Powell begin to look less like him dodging honest answers and more like someone realizing a filmmaker is trying to shame him and doesn’t want to be painted like that.
To his credit, Siskel departs in moments that suggest he’s tempered his views on Powell somewhat, such as Orchan accusing him of leading questions, as well as a bittersweet postscript. But that sounds dishonest in the face of everything he leaves. By the end of the film, it’s Siskel, not Powell, who emerges as the misguided agent provocateur who might need to reconsider.