Wednesday 14 March 2012

Apocalypse now?: "Four Horsemen"

You could bankrupt yourself shelling out to see all these credit-crunch documentaries, but Ross Ashcroft's Four Horsemen is one of the more inquisitive entries, seeking out a much broader historical and philosophical perspective on the state we're in: the opening few minutes alone propose, in all apparent seriousness, a theory on why David Beckham is only following in the footsteps (and hoofprints) of Ancient Rome's foremost charioteers. Ashcroft falls in with an emergent trend in this mini-cycle of films now we've entered the rebuilding phase, looking beyond the bankers, who've come to be regarded as mere triggermen, and back towards those millions of consumers who turned a bovine blind eye for so long while their bellies were full. If there is a villain here, it's those baby-boomers spoilt by the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, and encouraged to feather their nests at the expense of future generations - or indeed their less well-off contemporaries, the result being a planet that now supports the contradiction of unprecedented obesity and malnutrition.

Pushing the equine motif about as far as it might go - even dismissing trickledown economics as outright horseshit - the film ventures far and wide at a fair clip, touching upon numerous issues in its 98 minutes (the failure of religious leaders to provide better guidance, the wilful misreading of Adam Smith, the importance of empathy in all our future interactions) that its closest American equivalent, the generally fine Inside Job, couldn't in two hours. Yet even at its most discursive, Ashcroft's film remains commendably balanced, seeking the counsel of Messrs. Stiglitz and Chomsky as well as victims of foreclosures, those first-hand witnesses of the crash with experience of speaking in layman's terms - lowly laymen being those most likely to find their possessions turfed out on their own front lawn these days. Ashcroft does a good job explaining why fiat currencies - like that tenner burning a hole in your wallet - actually benefit governments and banks more than it does you or I; the difference between classical economics (the basis for capitalism, and the sale of material goods) and neo-classical economics (which paved the way for the more aggressive, corporate form of capitalism that tried to make us buy what wasn't there with money that wasn't ours); and why we've been told to protect certain systems and special interests, no matter how deleterious their effects.

There's an especially strong - and, as far as these films are concerned, pretty much exclusive - segment on U.S. foreign policy, and how overseas aid being put into the wrong hands fosters the kind of social inequality and unrest that can foster and sustain terrorism. (And you realise the symbolic genius, however malevolent, of flying planes into the World Trade Center, of all the tall American landmarks.) Like our account statements, it's not easy viewing, and its sheer density may necessitate two or three passes, perhaps in those lecture halls and community centres that are becoming such vital venues in our post-crash society. Yet Ashcroft keenly rejects amorality and apathy alike, and he may be the first documentarist working in this field to elicit viable solutions from his interviewees, rather than baleful shrugs: you can't fail to emerge better informed, and better prepared to make the kinds of changes and perception shifts we need to make if we are to move forward from here. Despite the doomladen title, this is a hugely encouraging watch.

Four Horsemen opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on April 2.

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