Review: ‘Yes Men’ expose corporate America’s malice
December 8, 2009
ASPEN – The agitprop prankster Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, known collectively as The Yes Men, are not into scripts. Given the slapdash, amateurish way the duo operates – typically, Bichlbaum looks utterly petrified and out of his element – it’s a wonder they pull off their stunts at all, much less get them filmed for viewing on the big screen.
But in their second film, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” a script is unnecessary. Especially when they have Ray Nagin speaking his own words in his real-life role as the mayor of New Orleans. At a U.S. Housing and Urban Development conference for contractors looking to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina – and looking to maximize profits from that endeavor – Nagin, thought by many to be a bumbling dupe, began speaking about the nature of truth and lies. He concludes with a joke about Truth and Lies going skinny-dipping. The punch line: “So you often have dressed-up Lies pursued by the naked Truth.”
Bichlbaum, posing as a HUD under-secretary, responds with a quick comeback: “I’m not sure how to follow that,” he says. “I feel kinda naked here.”
But Nagin’s story does much more than set up Bichlbaum for a good one-liner. It actually illuminates exactly what The Yes Men do: They lie, in the interest of exposing bigger, more significant truths. In the joke, Bichlbaum would be the one standing for the naked truth, with corporate America and its servants in government as the dressing up lies.
In politics and presentation, “The Yes Men Fix the World” is a clear echo of Michael Moore’s recent “Capitalism: A Love Story.” In fact, Kurt Engfehr, who co-produced and edited Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” co-directed The Yes Men’s latest, no doubt a good part of the reason the film is so watchable. But where Moore pours on the passion and works the emotions, The Yes Men focus on the stunts.
Moore’s occasional trick is to force his way into the executive offices to get an audience with a CEO. Bichlbaum and Bonanno’s routine m.o. is far bolder and funnier: They take over the CEO’s seat.
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“The Yes Men Fix the World” opens with a typically audacious maneuver. After setting up a bogus website, they are invited by the BBC to speak on live television for the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, chemical disaster that killed thousands. Taking the guise of a spokesman for Dow Chemical (which had bought Union Carbide, the company responsible for the catastrophe), he announces that the corporation will take financial responsibility for the damage. Within hours, Dow Chemical’s stock takes a $2 billion hit.
The Yes Men are rather quickly exposed as a fraud, with some of the media taking them to task for getting up the hopes of the Bhopal survivors. So Bichlbaum and Bonanno travel to India, and find that their efforts are actually appreciated: The incident put a spotlight on how Bhopal had been tormented for two decades by Big Business.
The Yes Men’s unconventional, but entertaining and socially enlightening method of truth-telling includes introducing an absurd personal-emergency suit for Halliburton, and a biofuel made of the human victims of climate change, for Exxon. In New York City, they distribute their own copies of The New York Times, bearing the lead story, “Iraq War Ends.”
Not true, obviously. But the hopeful reception the newspaper gets from readers gets near the truth: People want the war to end. Just as they want justice in Bhopal, limits on corporate profiteering, and greater government accountability. And, yes, a good laugh.