Film review: The Pursuit

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, May 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a new documentary film, The Pursuit.

Since 1970, the number of people living in starvation-level poverty has dropped by 80 percent. A remarkable decline. But you wouldn’t know it by turning on the evening news.

Professional musician-turned-economist Arthur Brooks traveled the globe in search of how those gains happened. He recently spoke to WORLD Radio about the project.

BROOKS: You’re not going to see a headline in The New York Times, “A Million People Not Hungry Today That Would Have Been Otherwise”… And the reason is not because they’re evil or biased or fake news or any of that stuff. It’s just because it’s not news.

What gets your attention is when really terrible things are happening. When a hurricane goes through town. When there’s a suicide bomber. When there’s violence. When there’s crime. That’s the stuff that really gets your attention.

And so the result is when you see a famine or when you see some terrible, terrible, unfortunate circumstance that’s affecting people’s lives, it starts to stick in your imagination that it’s happening all over the world.

EICHER: Brooks set out to discover not only where the gains happened, but what types of government delivered them.

His findings have lots of implications for American society and policymakers. Megan Basham is here now with a review of the documentary.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Arthur Brooks has never been a man short on ideas. That has served him well as president of the American Enterprise Institute and as the best-selling author of books like The Road to Freedom and The Conservative Heart. But it’s a challenge to pack all those wide-ranging social and economic ideas into 76 minutes.

On paper, his new documentary, The Pursuit, is about human potential and the dignity of work. Or it’s about common misconceptions about capitalism. Or it’s about why the Scandinavian democratic-socialist model works for small, homogenous nations like Norway and Denmark but isn’t transferable to the United States. Or it’s about how no culture is capable of being truly secular and how worship divorced from religious doctrine can drive national politics.

It’s all heady stuff marked by engaging statistics and scenes. Early on Brooks breaks down the surprising degree to which the modern world has eradicated extreme poverty.

CLIP: And those who have benefitted the most from this? It’s not the rich. It’s those at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

He impressively links this back to his experience as a young man in socialist Spain. And at one point he probes Spanish protesters about the limits of their disdain for free enterprise.

CLIP: [Spanish protesters]

Then Brooks jumps to other, equally thoughtful topics, each enough for its own film. And they’re only loosely related to the previous one.

One particularly striking section comes when he interviews groups of Danes who gather in libraries on weekday mornings to sing what sound like hymns about paying taxes.

CLIP: [Danes singing in library]

Before we can digest the strange scene, Brooks whisks us back to the American shores. There he argues that while other countries are largely defined by ethnic national identity, the United States is founded on ideas.

Brooks argues that the rising tide of populism is a serious threat to what makes the U.S. exceptional. The camera flashes to an American flag-clad demonstrator shouting, “If you don’t speak English and don’t contribute, get out.”

CLIP: One people, one nation, end immigration

We then see white supremacists carrying torches at a Unite the Right rally chanting, “One people, one nation, end immigration.” From there the scene quickly pans across a screaming shirtless man—buffed-out and covered in tattoos—like a character from a prison yard.

Brooks uses the images to segue way into another thesis. He says the greatest political divide in modern America isn’t between the right and left but between those who want a more open society and those who don’t.

No one names President Trump, but it seems clear this argument is meant to address his voters. It’s the weakest segment of the film, since Brooks doesn’t personally engage them as he does the European socialists.

Brooks does interview some Kentucky coal miners about the economic stagnation they’ve experienced in recent decades.

CLIP: They didn’t think about the future, you know, what we’re going to do if the mines ever shut down or coal goes away, what are we going to do? They didn’t think about that. They didn’t expect it. They didn’t expect it.

But we don’t hear from—for example—closed border hardliners to explain their rationale. Nor does he consider whether they might believe they’re trying to protect that American idea rather than their own ethnic dominance.

There’s a lot worth considering in The Pursuit, which will be available on streaming on May 7. But it doesn’t build arguments likely to persuade viewers who don’t already share Brooks’ views.

Other documentaries—particularly the Acton Institute’s Poverty, Inc., cover slices of the same territory with greater depth. The Pursuit is probably best viewed as a companion piece for Brooks’s new book, Love Your Enemies, where he has much more space to share his impressive mind.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


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