The American Ruling Class is a bizarre mix of documentary and scripted comedy, that never quite works, but has moments of brilliant insight.
Lewis Lapham is the long-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, having held that position since 1976, excluding 1982. Well placed to pontificate on the role of a ‘ruling class’ in what is held by many of its inhabitants as a classless society, he has the relationships to get access and interviews for his proteges. In an attempt to make this seem less of a personal crusade, he enlists two young actors to play recent graduates of Yale University, who are then given scripts and time with various luminaries of politics and society, in the hope they will answer just as they have. These actors are supposed to be exploring the choices afforded young people of their ilk – do they become members of the elite money-making machine and forget their idealistic dreams of changing the world?
Viewed as a documentary and political satire this film works. Just. The scripted questions provoke some amazing responses from the powerful interviewees, many of whom wholeheartedly endorse Lapham’s thesis of the ruling class. The most incredible example is the sequence with James A. Baker III, former White House Chief of Staff and then Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and then Secretary of State under George Bush. He is now Honorary Chair of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas. In a moment of cinematic gold, he calmly states that citizens of foreign countries are always glad when they are assisted (invaded) by US troops, as they (we) are certain of the good will of the US in not wanting their resources or land, and having purely helpful intentions. He goes on to detail how having one superpower is good for the world, as the US continues to act selflessly in this role. To say that the audience found this interview amusing is an understatement – there was not giggling, but outright laughter. Laughter tinged with horror that one man could be so deluded, one country so full of itself.
There are many examples of powerful people extolling the pursuit of power as an opportunity to effect change, and at times these people are convincing. Less convincing, however, are the actors playing the two young men. At times smirking along like they’re in on the joke, and at times sadly lacking the skills to make themselves seem at all authentic, they unfortunately fail to give this mockumentary the real teeth it may have had. In seeing them fall out of character again and again the audience is distracted by their performances from the bigger message Lapham is attempting to get across.
Mixed with musical numbers which provide great amusement and serious thought, The American Ruling Class is a strange mixture of success and failure. It should be rewarded highly for the musical number ‘Nickel and Dime’ and the revealing interviews with Baker and several others, but penalised for its casting failures. Lapham is a strange figure as the host and narrator, and never quite seems comfortable, and the final musical credits lose the plot. Worth watching? Only just.Rating: