Nell Minow on: Documentaries, Liberals & Funny Shows, & the Best Movie of the Century
~ January 22, 2017
ell Minow, aka Movie Mom, has been one of our country’s top film critics for years now. (Find her reviews here.) Her movie reviews are full of that Roger Ebert-like joy of cinema, for its own sake. Nell is also an expert on corporate governance—Businessweek, in fact, called her “the queen of corporate good governance.” Here are her answers to questions ranging from the importance of documentaries and stand-up comics, to establishing CEO pay, to the weird lack of respect for science. Oh, and also the best film of the century.
LWC: A lot more people get their political (and other) information from documentaries, compared with earlier times, and there have been some very prominent documentaries in the past 15 years: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Why We Fight (2005), Sicko (2007), Food, Inc. (2008), etc. Was there a particular film that started the avalanche? Why are documentaries so important to us now?
NM: Great question! There are several factors that led to the rise of documentaries as a way for delivering news or advocacy. One is a new generation of documentarians who departed from the serious, straightforward approach of traditional non-fiction films, like Michael Moore, the director behind some of the movies you point to as examples. His brash, provocative, fierce and funny films, with no pretense of “objectivity,” attracted audiences exponentially larger than any before. And when former Vice President Al Gore appeared in “An Inconvenient Truth,” it was not only a critical success and an Oscar winner, but it had a measurable impact in changing the conversation about climate change. So, box office, style, and effectiveness in communication were all important factors. But as important were the changes in technology that made it possible for almost anyone to make a documentary. If you think about it, almost any video on YouTube is a form of documentary, and those films reach millions of viewers every day. Anyone can make a documentary with a cell phone that can go viral and become a part of the culture.
"I think the biggest disappointment of my life has been the recognition that what I thought was a universal commitment to empiricism seems to be lost in a Dark Ages-style suspicion of science and data."
LWC: At the end of your movie reviews, you will often cite literary and cultural references. Why do you do this?
NM: Movies are not just a way to pass the time. They are a way to connect to ideas and situations and characters who challenge our assumptions and make us see the world in a new way. I like to remind people who read my reviews that movies are just the beginning of a journey of exploration and imagination and give them some ideas about where that can take them next. Plus, it gives me a chance to recommend some of my favorite books and movies and museums!
LWC: Young people have been getting a lot of their news and cultural analysis from comedians. One very good reason is that comedians will talk openly about taboo subjects, like the particulars of sex (Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler), Left politics (George Carlin, Bill Maher), and atheism (Ricky Gervais, Jim Jeffries). What do you think of this trend? Is it a good idea?
NM: Whether it is good or bad, it is here. It often seems to me that liberals are more likely to trust funny news sources like “The Daily Show” and conservatives are more likely to trust angry news sources like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. I’m not sure why that is. I know I learned a lot about the news in order to understand the jokes in MAD Magazine, and I hope these sources are equally inspiring. It’s only a problem if watching these sources leaves them feeling smug instead of curious to learn more.
LWC: Besides being Movie Mom, you are an expert on corporate governance, in an age when many people hate large corporations. Can you give us a brief (and non-lawyerly) idea on what corporate governance means?
"We are living, you could argue, in Age of Cheney. The vice-President held a significant financial stake in Halliburton, a company whose stock increased in value as a result of the war that he, arguably, began."
NM: Corporate governance is a lot like political governance in some ways – it is about how decisions get made. And the challenge is to make sure the right questions are asked and that the answer comes from people who have the best access to information and the fewest conflicts of interest. So, just to give one example, let’s look at CEO pay. Do we want the pay to be set by the CEO him or herself? No, because there is a clear conflict of interest – the CEO might take all the money and leave nothing for the shareholders. Should pay be set by shareholders? Well, they might want optimal pay but not know how to determine it and there are certainly too many of them to communicate with each other effectively. So, CEO pay is set by a board of directors theoretically selected by shareholders. One reason CEO pay is so out of whack now is that in reality, board members are picked by and informed by the CEO, so one area of corporate governance I work on is making boards better informed and more independent so they can make better choices on topics where insiders might have an overly short-term or conflicted view, like asset allocation, CEO pay, and sustainability.
LWC: In a not-very-well-known case, Liggett v. Lee, Louis Brandeis wrote a scathing attack on the growing power of corporations, in which he complained that “ownership has been separated from control…” How hopeless is the situation, given the enormous power of corporations?
NM: It is interesting that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders attracted a lot of voters because they said they would not take corporate money, while early front-runners Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush took the money and were criticized for it. Controversial corporate connections are now front page news with regard to Trump and many of his appointees. So, there is a lot of political will to reduce the power of corporations. Furthermore, large institutional investors, including sovereign wealth funds are increasingly holding corporations accountable, a good example of the invisible hand of the market working for greater economic efficiency.
LWC: Authors like Chris Hedges and Ellen Schrecker have suggested that our national mental acuity might be in question. Here’s Hedges, summing up at the end of Empire of Illusion: “The most ominous cultural divide lies between those who chase after these manufactured illusions, and those who are able to puncture the illusion and confront reality…This is the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture.” (Hedges, 190) Is this what’s going on? Does it help to explain the 2016 campaign at all?
NM: I think the biggest disappointment of my life has been the recognition that what I thought was a universal commitment to empiricism seems to be lost in a Dark Ages-style suspicion of science and data. It seems people will spend twice the energy not to think what it takes to bring some independent analysis to what we are told. We have the greatest access to information in history, but the greatest access to disinformation as well. Government, academia, and the press have all lost much of their credibility. People post links to fake news stories without taking two seconds to check them out even though sites like Google or Snopes or Polifact make it easy to do so. It is the responsibility of every parent and every school to teach children how to challenge what they are told, how to stay curious, how to separate logic and fallacy and fact from fraud. And it is up to each of us to demonstrate our own commitment to the truth by being careful what we share.
LWC: We are living, you could argue, in Age of Cheney. The vice-President held a significant financial stake in Halliburton, a company whose stock increased in value as a result of the war that he, arguably, began. It’s hard to talk about ethics and corruption if we’re going to now give a pass to such huge conflicts of interest, isn’t it?
NM: That’s like saying “Education is expensive until you consider the cost of ignorance.” It may be hard to talk about ethics and corruption. But it is harder not to. To put it in monetary terms, it is a brand issue. There is a corruption discount we will pay for every transaction, political or economic, that is tainted with even the appearance of a conflict of interest or self-dealing. It is absolutely essential that we insist on the integrity of our leaders. The outcry over the bungled attempt by Congress to weaken their ethics office is heartening. The fact that they then snuck through a different set of limits on ethics oversight is disturbing. Jefferson may or may not have said that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" but it is still true and vital to remember.
LWC: A closer question—do you have a favorite movie of our new century? (Mine is Children of Men.)
NM: Great film. I’d have to say mine is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but of course there are many I love.