by Tony Medley
Run time 93 minutes.
Not for children.
Because the book,
Freakonomics, was a huge bestseller, the co-authors, Steven D.
Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, decided they wanted to make a film based
on their theme, which they define as “the truth,” perceived by asking
the right questions. So they recruited some documentarians they thought
could ask the right questions and let them do their thing.
It starts with the two writers
apparently talking off the cuff and unrehearsed, not breaking the fourth
wall. But these conversations do not set much of a standard for honesty.
Dubner tells Levitt, “Tell the story about Amanda,” and Levitt
unctuously replies, “Oh, that’s pretty long,” then says, OK, as if he
just made the decision to tell Amanda’s story on the spot as they were
sitting there in front of the cameras and hot lights. That’s hardly the
way to set a “truth” criterion.
Unfortunately, the several
documentaries are too long, tedious, and really don’t make much of a
point. One, a documentary on “cheaters,” concentrates on sumo wrestling
and the discovery that many matches are fixed. That might be interesting
in Japan where there are people who actually care about sumo wrestling.
It might even be interesting outside of Japan if it were short enough.
But this one, directed by Alex Dibney, who is responsible for
Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), and
Casino Jack and
the United States of Money (2010), two of the more biased pieces
of propaganda disguised as documentaries, goes on so long that the
point, if not lost, at least loses its effectiveness.
Another, about incentives by
Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing,
mendaciously purports to show people living
their lives as they live them. But they are living their normal lives in
front of cameras and film crews, so a viewer can’t take anything they
say or do as anything other than an act.
Then there is a documentary by
Eugene Jarecki on why the crime rate fell between the 1970s and the
1990s. Golly, gee, but what a surprise to find out that this examines a
specious idea propounded by none other than Steven D. Levitt, the
producer of this film! Levitt’s idea was that the crime rates fell in
the 1990s because abortion was legalized in 1973 by the Supreme Court’s
notorious decision outlawing abortion in Roe v. Wade. Levitt
starts with the undocumented and unstated assumption that unwanted
children are the ones who cause crime, and then makes the connection
that the decision allowed unwanted children to be killed in the womb and
not born. Since they weren’t born in the 1970s, they weren’t around to
commit crimes when they would have reached adulthood in the 1990s.
Levitt presents not one iota
of evidence for this, no proof that crime is caused by being “unwanted.”
He just makes the bald allegation, and draws a conclusion. Levitt
ignores the facts that the economy sucked in the 1970s due in large part
to the inept Presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, that it
rebounded mightily due to Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, and that there is
abundant evidence that crime is tied into the economy.
There is far more
corroboration that crime increases as the economy gets worse and
decreases as it gets better than there is that all crime is caused by
unwanted children. But Levitt ties a halo around the 1973 Roe v. Wade
decision and the lower crime rate in the 1990s and draws a
conclusion that can stand as a classic example of the post hoc ergo
proctor hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this).
Levitt’s conclusion is about as logical as blaming 9/11 on the Yankees
losing the 1955 World Series to the Dodgers. Maybe Jarecki’s
participation in the film was conditioned on his pushing Levitt’s
The charm of the book was that
it did come near to living up to its promotion, that it exposes the
hidden side of everything, debunking conventional wisdom, and revealing
what answers may come if one just asks the right questions. Based on
that standard, however, this movie perverts the basis of the book, since
many of the answers it draws are based on bald conjecture and staged or
semi-staged scenes rather than fact.
September 20, 2010