“Heist” Chronicles Theft of American Dream

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April 17, 2012 in Culture & Media

Heist, a new film by Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher, joins the growing list of angry documentaries chronicling the destruction of America’s economy and its middle class by powerful corporate forces. Like Inside Job and just about any title in the Brave New Films catalog, Heist gets our blood boiling with its money-pile graphics and occasional glib comments exhaled by Wall Street fat cats. Call this genre the Cinema of Outrage.

Subtitled Who Stole the American Dream?, the film breaks away from the pack, however, by drilling deep to explain how we came to find ourselves on the verge of where Argentina was a dozen years ago. The film also eschews conspiracist viewpoints and refuses to offer up, say, Alan Greenspan or the Koch brothers as villainous piñatas for us to vicariously bash.

Instead, Causey and Goldmacher soberly state their case that a concerted, multi-generational effort by business interests and their conservative familiars in Congress has lopsidedly transferred wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. Along the way, this strategy has stripped away the job security and high living standard enjoyed by the average American between 1945 and 1970.

(See trailer:)

The film makers locate the start of this highly successful political offensive with a detailed 1971 memo sent by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a think piece that would eventually spawn a broad assault on the New Deal’s legacy. (Okay, there is some conspiracist whispering.) It lays out the corporate agenda as clearly as a battle map found in the boot of a Heritage Foundation spy.

That agenda has targeted unions, entitlement programs, government regulation and mainstream media. Heist isn’t reductive eye candy: It demonstrates, for example, that a major problem of the American economy isn’t simply the flight of good manufacturing jobs to the man-made plains of Shenzhen, but the flight there of even crummy service-sector jobs.

If, however, your idea of a Periclean Age is Bill Clinton, forget it — Causey and Goldmacher won’t let you get misty-eyed over his presidency, as interviews and news clips assembled from the time remind us of Clinton’s complicity in deregulation and the dismantling of the social safety net. The assault on the middle class, Heist reminds us, has been a bipartisan project.

Through interviews with Senator Bernie Sanders, authors Robert Kuttner and Nomi Prins and others, Heist offers specific fixes to the current crisis, even if they aren’t particularly novel: public funding of elections, a return to fair taxation, grassroots political initiatives, renewable energy, etc. That some of these strategies fall under the “fight back” category (i.e., they only restore real wages and America’s safety net to 1970 or 1980 levels) isn’t the fault of the film makers or the activists they interview – America’s situation is so grave that merely restorative actions are required before any needed structural changes can be made.

In the end, it’s up to us to do something once we leave screenings of Heist. As Rebuild the Dream president Van Jones says toward the film’s end, all of us as citizens have to decide whether we are merely locusts devouring America, or honey bees who nurture it.

Heist screens with a panel discussion Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m., at the Grand Lake Theater, Oakland.

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Steven Mikulan
Capital & Main editor Steven Mikulan is a Los Angeles writer.
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