Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
It’s doubtful a lively documentary could be made about the dismal science of traditional economics and mathematical formulas, or about behavioral economists who add psychological factors in ideal, controlled situations. But the real world applications in the best-selling Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics by University of Chicago economics professor Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner overthrow conventional wisdom to make economics enjoyable and insightful for a general audience.
Five teams of documentarians, who have also had popular success, turn Freakonomics into a learning-is-fun movie in an anthology of their distinctive styles. Their treatments range from illustrating the same examples from the books, to adding more background material and policy analysis, to applying the principles to new experiments.
Seth Gordon (King of Kong) introduces the folksy authors, with their explanation of the first book’s subtitle “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” to look at hard data of what people actually do in their lives. Their first principle, “Experts Use Their Information to Serve Their Own Private Agendas,” is illustrated through the financial motivations of cartoon real-estate agents that everyone who has bought property can relate to.
“A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), is the freakonomic answer to that age-old quandary for parenting: which is more important, nature or nurture? With cutesy reenactments and fast moving photo-montage animation, this is a very faithful adaptation of the chapter that explores the impact of names that African-Americans and whites choose for their children. The interviews with the personable Ivy League academics, who were quoted in the book, also keep up the breezy-with-a-message feel.
In “Pure Corruption,” director Alex Gibney, who explored other kinds of cheating in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, helps clarify and add to the book’s somewhat confusing look at corruption in sumo wrestling. Gibney, who has lived in Japan where the sport is revered, interviews wrestlers and managers to explain the esoteric sport and its complicated organization, with lots of colorful match footage. A local journalist follows up on the book’s convincing charges of bout-fixing to reveal the repercussions of the accusations.
Despite narrator Melvin Van Peebles’ wry reconsideration of George Bailey’s classic wish to have never been born, the third short, “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” by director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), is the weakest in the film. Looking at cause and effect, it seems to fall into the same trap the authors warn about in tangling correlation with causation, turning the economist’s finding of a link between abortion and the drop in crime since Roe v. Wade into a fairly strident criticism of anti-crime policies. I found this approach awkward both here and in the book because that is not how the researchers presented their findings at one of the first academic conferences, which I attended, where they invited critiques from skeptical social scientists of the analysis. That original presentation much more effectively demonstrated two of the basic freakonomics principles: “Dramatic Effects Can Have Distant, Subtle Causes” and “Knowing What to Measure and How to Measure Makes a Complicated World Less So.” Also missing in the comparison to the anti-abortion policies of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu is the authors’ ironic insight that it may have been those grown-up unwanted babies who helped depose the dictator.
In “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?” directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing use their effective and involving follow-the-subjects vérité style (Jesus Camp) to explore a new experiment based on the freakonomics principle of incentives to change behavior. Going beyond the data analysis in the book conducted with the participation of the Chicago public school system (involving pre-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, then head of the city’s schools), they track two charming ninth grade boys, one white and one black, both with concerned mothers but failing grades. The boys, and their classmates, are offered $50 for every grade they receive above a C, plus the chance to win a $500 lottery. Too bad the findings duplicate what the fourth season of David Simon’s The Wire already brilliantly illuminated—junior high is too late a point to motivate underachieving students. The focus needs to be on younger students as seen in the plethora of documentaries this year on school reform.
pluses than minuses, Freakonomics
the movie is as entertaining as it’s educational and enlightening. It helps the economics medicine go down
with spoonfuls of sugar to learn the key freakonomics principle: keep
Nora Lee Mandel