The Yes Men, dirs. Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, Chris Smith, 2004. Film review

Review of the documentary about the corporate lampooners

Submitted by Tom Jennings on March 10, 2008

The Maybe Men

This latest liberal-left documentary on the big screen follows anti-globalisation performance-activists Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum spoofing neoliberalism on the internet, in the media and at international trade conferences. Faking World Trade Organisation and GATT websites, they parody corporate-speak so convincingly they’re invited to global industry junkets – pronouncing and powerpointing on squeezing niche profits from contemporary slavery and market-driven fascism. So, on the problems of keeping the peace on remote factory plantations, they zip open their business suits to reveal giant inflatable phallic panopticon surveillance gizmos; or resolve uneconomic patterns of agriculture along with world hunger by unveiling surreal Soylent Green junk food recipes for Third-World burgers made from First-World shit. And they’re taken seriously, applauded politely, and welcomed into the prestigious think-tank fold. It should all make energising material in the service of some larger anticapitalist tactic – and much fun is clearly had. Nevertheless, despite the creative intelligence at work, there’s a sense of naïve fluffy left-critique gone horribly wrong, sucked into the Quatermass of its antithesis.

Entertaining, insightful and potentially productive though this kind of ‘culture jamming’ may be, it doesn’t occur to the film makers to address viewers not converted to the cause – or to design the narrative so as to solicit active participation. We’re left in a curiously passive position, open-mouthed like the hapless corporate patsies at the cleverness of Bonnano and Bichlbaum’s interventions. This is a wasted opportunity if the film reaches multiplexes, which was crying out for a sharper promotional hook than merely trumpeting student rag week japes. After it was made, another ‘triumph’ was achieved when a purported representative of Dow Chemicals admitted responsibility for the Union Carbide chemicals disaster in Bhopal, India. Considerable international news coverage elapsed before the Yes Men were rumbled; whether or not they accounted for the survivors’ falsely raised hopes and anguish is unclear …

Populist political comedians like Michael Moore or Mark Thomas would never make these mistakes, and their grandiose schemes always at least hint at smaller-scale efforts that us lesser mortals might consider. Genuine personal involvement helps – with those resisting domination, on a comically human level with adversaries, or direct bodily engagement with your ‘issue’. And if the film was intended for internal consumption by the anti-globalisation movement (not being expected to attract commercial interest), then finding a politically strategic focus for Situationist stunts should top the agenda. Simply cheerleading our heroes’ sneering at the cretinism of capitalism’s flunkies doesn’t cut it. We’re all stupid, after all.
Having said that, The Yes Men is well worth seeing and recommending – for a laugh; as food for thought and inspiration; to enrich our polemical vocabulary … and as encouragement to aim for more than protesting the moral evils of late capitalism.

[The Yes Men is on general release, and can also be seen on April 21st at the CCA, Glasgow, as part of the RISK: Creative Action In Political Culture programme.]

Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 7, April 2005.

For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: