The Power of Yes
Imagine it's a weekday morning and you're at a trade conference in Finland. You're sleepy, maybe a little jet-lagged, as you prepare for the next speaker. He's a representative from the World Trade Organization, and he has come to talk to you about "The Future of Textiles." First, he presents an argument that seems to excuse slavery as economically beneficial. Then he demonstrates how, by "allowing" slaves (i.e., workers) to remain in their home countries, companies can actually save money by managing them from afar. Eventually, the speaker has an assistant rip off his suit to reveal a gold lamé unitard, outfitted with a huge inflatable penis containing a screen to monitor international workers at their sewing machines. Feeling a bit suspicious?
If you are, you'd be in the minority. When Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, pranksters known as the Yes Men, perpetrated this very stunt, nobody said a word. Nobody, that is, until Bichlbaum and Bonanno notified the roughly 25,000 contacts on their press list, and the story was picked up by media outlets around the world. And for the Yes Men, whose goal is to expose the evildoers at the top of the power structure by, largely, impersonating them, media attention is entirely the point.
The Yes Men, the eponymous documentary, comes to us from directors Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price. Smith and Price are the team behind American Movie, the hilarious story of a humble man's attempt to fulfill his moviemaking dreams. With The Yes Men, they have a different kind of subject, two postmodern techies and performance artists who cannot be ironized from without. For Bichlbaum and Bonanno, irony is the consummate tool, a megaphone to wake the morally cloudy from their slumber, wielded in everything they do. Perhaps because the men are so knowing, the film never questions them; it doesn't attempt to understand more than they do, or to encourage them to look deeply into themselves. As a result, The Yes Men is a little flat. It's fun, because the story is fun, and it does a basic job of following its subjects for a couple of years. But it could have gone deeper.
Introduced by mutual friends, Bichlbaum and Bonanno (could those be their real names?) have been collaborating on political puckishness since 1996. Initially, they developed "identity correction" Web sites, defined in this way: "We're going to target the biggest criminals and...steal their identity to make them more honest." In practice, this manifested in www.gwbush.com, a fake Bush site with the tagline "Drug-free since 1974," and www.gatt.org, a site masquerading as the WTO (GATT was the precursor to the WTO) that, among other things, announced its own dissolution. Before long, the Yes Men were receiving e-mails and speaking requests from people who thought the sites were real.
They said yes. Bichlbaum first appeared at a conference in Salzburg, impersonating an officer of the WTO. He also debated Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement (an NGO that campaigns to tackle poverty), on European CNN, essentially professing that the people in power make the rules, and so be it. The film begins as the Yes Men prepare for the appearance in Finland and follows them through that performance to one in Plattsburgh, New York, and a third in Australia.
The most interesting of the three is Plattsburgh, for several reasons. First, it's at a university, in a lecture hall filled with economics students. (Their professor is in on the joke.) Second, what the Yes Men propose is outlandish in the extreme. Bichlbaum poses, as usual, as the WTO rep; Bonanno is a rep from McDonald's, complete with logo-embroidered vest and a couple of boxes of fresh Quarter Pounders. The men pass out the food, and Bichlbaum leads the class through a PowerPoint presentation that proposes to end starvation by feeding populations in third-world countries recycled human shit. The 3D animations are revolting, and the class takes serious offense. They begin tentatively, with a young woman from India registering her disgust, and eventually rise, as a class, to civilized outrage. As they do, they become the only audience ever to question the elitist, racist and even fascist propaganda that the Yes Men have sold to others. What a relief.
As a documentary, The Yes Men is not particularly inspired. For one thing, there's too much footage of Bichlbaum and Bonanno speaking directly to the camera, narrating past events -- and often merely narrating, as opposed to examining or questioning. They offer cursory answers to basic questions, such as how they originated their pranks and what they think about the reactions (or, more usually, lack thereof) they've received. But, for instance, what gives the Yes Men the courage to carry out their stunts? How do they feel when they're doing it? How has doing it changed them? The film succeeds well enough in its portrayal of what these men do, but what about who they are? The most telling moments, such as when Bichlbaum and Bonanno shop for secondhand business clothes, are few and far between. As people, the men remain largely unknown.
Still, the Yes Men are having a hell of a lot of fun. And because their civil disobedience is as heartening as it is amusing, it's a pleasure to meet them.
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