At the beginning of The Yes Men Fix the World, one of the titular duo nervously prepares for fraudulently representing Dow Chemical in front of a purported BBC World News audience of 300 million—telling "a really big lie which unfortunately is gonna wipe $2 billion off one company’s stock price."
Now, why would anyone want to do that? Well, in this case to try shaming the corporation into properly addressing the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that cost thousands of lives. (Estimates including subsequent gas-related disease deaths run as high as 35,000.) It remains the worst industrial disaster in history. The original restitution sums and contamination cleanup efforts were pitifully inadequate; the area remains a health and environmental dead zone. Dow, which absorbed Union Carbide in 2003, claims it holds no responsibility for the tragedy or its lingering aftereffects.
On the accident’s 20th anniversary, Dow spokesman Jude Finisterra broke the company’s silence with the shocking on-air announcement that it would immediately commence a $12 billion plan to compensate victims and clean up the site. There was immediate, worldwide acclaim—as well as a sudden three percent drop in Dow stock value.
Then there was outrage, it being discovered that there was no real "Jude Finisterra," just Andy Bichlbaum of culture jammers The Yes Men, who pose as representatives for "corporations we don’t like," creating "fake websites, then waiting for people to accidentally invite us to conferences." Or onto international newscasts.
Fix the World is the second feature Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (names which themselves are pseudonyms) have "starred" in, this one (directed by the two plus Kurt Engfehr) following 2003’s The Yes Men (directed by Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith). They’re definitely actors of a sort, altering their physical appearances for elaborate pranks in which they clearly enjoy the spotlight.
As in the first documentary, this can get a little too cute at times, with the duo cavorting in scenes staged solely for the film. (A big thumbs-up, however, to the opening-credits, in which they perform a two-man, business-suited water ballet.) If you chafe at the onscreen presence of, say, Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, you might also be irked by The Yes Men’s particular self-satisfied brand of performance art satire. But it is funny, and instructive.
A bit more polished in assembly than the earlier feature, Fix the World chronicles several large-scale pranks devised in the hopes of fooling corporate/government event attendees and/or the media. Their success at the former is variable—sometimes the camera catches conference personnel rolling eyes and whispering to each other over the patently outrageous statements of the Men in their latest guise as flaks for Halliburton or Exxon Mobile. But the gags are amusing anyhow, and they have some spectacular scores proving how easy it can be to dupe the powers-that-be—at least briefly.
This is certainly the case with their representing Dow on the BBC, and again when Bichlbaum poses as a Department of Housing and Urban Development honcho—flanked by the oblivious New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor—to announce HUD will finally, truly address the city’s post-Katrina housing problems, which have prevented many (especially poor) residents from returning.
In both cases, there was widespread back-slapping over the welcome, if belated, justice of the announced actions—then five minutes later the media denounced these â€œcruel hoaxesâ€? for offering false hope to the disasters’ victims.
Yet when Bonanno and Bichlbaum visit aggrieved residents of Bhopal and New Orleans, they’re not mad at being given "false hope"—they’re grateful somebody, anybody is trying to shame the bigwigs into doing what they should have done long ago. (The Yes Men view Katrina as something of a corporate disaster as well, since the gradual despoiling of surrounding wetlands for commercial use left the city far more vulnerable to flooding than it would have been otherwise.)
There’s a message of hope, or rather a call to action, at the end of The Yes Men Fix the World. Having disseminated a fake New York Times issue offering people the news they wish were true (Iraq war over, corporate miscreants duly punished, etc.), Bonanno asks, "If a few people at the top can make the bad news happen, why can’t all of us at the bottom get together and make the good news happen?"
It’s good note to exit on. But if The Yes Men use humor in an attempt to embarrass righteous action from profit-at-all-cost entities, what Fix the World mostly underlines is how humorless, and shameless, those bodies are. Interviewing acolytes of late "guru of greed" economist Milton Friedman, they encounter well-situated "experts" whose faith in globalization, deregulation, the trickle-down theory, etc., is like blinding religious zealotry.
Is global warming really something bad enough to necessitate the end of business-as-usual? Oh no, one such free-market fan assures us. In fact, there’s a bright side! "Cold-related deaths will actually decrease significantly," he says. Now that’s reassuring—but how will it impact the mohair-blanket industry….?
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