The end is nigh! Maybe. Probably. Possibly. ... Or not.
Directed by Chris Smith
Lurking somewhere between the far-from-overlapping worlds of mesmerizing monologuist Spalding Gray and nutty Internet conspiracy monger Jeff Rense is Michael Ruppert. The retired-police-officer-turned-radical-thinker is the subject of a new documentary by Chris Smith, who has made his career focusing on amusing, out-of-the-mainstream oddballs in films like American Job, American Movie, Home Movie and The Yes Men.
Smith apparently stumbled across Mr. Ruppert while researching a different (as yet unrealized) documentary about CIA drug smuggling. (Ruppert’s parents were allegedly government spies, adding another layer of “could it be true?” creepiness to our key talking head’s backstory.) Ruppert’s an ordinary looking, middle-aged schlub with a balding pate, a cop mustache and the sort of smoking habit only R.J. Reynolds would love. The legend is that he more or less predicted our current economic collapse in his self-published newsletter From the Wilderness. And he’s got more dirt. Dirtier dirt. Basically, according to Ruppert, we’re all screwed.
In this stark, minimalist portrait-cum-lecture, the chain-smoking doomsayer lays out in a stone-cold sober manner how a worldwide economy based on oil and petroleum products is inherently unstable and doomed to failure. Throw in overpopulation, drought and corporate overfarming and you’ve got a planet incapable of sustaining life. Yup, Ruppert isn’t satisfied with the mere collapse of the current administration. He’s not speculating on the fall of the American empire. He’s predicting no less than the end of the world itself.
On the surface, it would seem easy to dismiss Ruppert’s theories as crackpot doom-and-gloom. (Even if we do run out of oil, is there absolutely no other energy source in the world—nuclear, solar, geothermal, biodiesel—that’s viable?) Lump him in with all the other paranoid gurus who have tried and failed to predict the end of the world and Ruppert’s just another buzz among the din. Except, with Collapse, we’re obliged to sit and listen to him at length. The guy seems well-informed. He’s articulate. He’s got charts. And worst of all, he’s been right before.
As in his previous films, Smith isn’t really interested in deconstructing his subjects. His preferred style is to back off and let them hoist themselves by their own petard, if they’re so inclined. He doesn’t probe Ruppert’s background. He doesn’t test the man’s assertions. He barely even interviews the guy. One prompt and Ruppert is good to rant on for 20 minutes at a clip. And yet there is the feeling of gathering around the campfire and listening to a well-told horror yarn from grandpa. Ruppert spins a scary one, that’s for sure—a Stephen King scenario full of economic collapse, food shortages, violence and revolution.
Is Ruppert right? Who the hell knows? I sure hope not. Collapse offers no dissenting views. In fact, it rarely strays from a shadowy close-up of Ruppert’s face to unspool the occasional historical news clip. With this, Smith seems to be aping Errol Morris’ style from the incredible Robert McNamara bio-doc The Fog of War. Smith is no Morris. Ruppert is no McNamara either. When Smith does raise a minor concern or two, Ruppert all but explodes in a mix of rage and tears. Is this the image of a nut-job losing it? Or the Last Sane Man on the Planet expressing the utter frustration of shouting his Absolute Truth to deaf ears?
In the end, Collapse works a sneaky sort of magic. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Ruppert is just a lonely old crank ranting about the apocalypse and warning the ignorant masses to start hoarding seeds, gold and shotguns. In that respect, it’s a functional enough documentary. At the same time, even though you feel sorry for the poor, beleaguered guy, it’s not so easy to shake the nagging feeling that he might just be right after all. ... So where did that Burpee Seed Catalog go?