The current documentary landscape is chockfull of doom-laden scenarios of every stripe: If global warming (An Inconvenient Truth) doesn’t get you, then maybe genetically engineered Frankenfoods (Food, Inc.), will. Or contaminated water (Flow). Or crushing personal (Maxed Out) and national (I.O.U.S.A.) debt. But few apocalyptic visions are as comprehensive and frighteningly assured as the one offered by Michael Ruppert, the subject of Chris Smith’s mesmerizing new documentary Collapse. A former Los Angeles police officer turned independent reporter, Ruppert has chased big stories for his self-published newsletter, From The Wilderness, on everything from CIA involvement in drug trafficking to the current economic crisis, which he claims to have predicted long before it gobsmacked the mainstream media. His latest obsession is the issue of “peak oil,” the concern that oil production has reached its apex, and as fossil fuels decline, our entire industrial and economical infrastructure will collapse along with it.
Shooting the tortured, chain-smoking Ruppert inside what looks like a bunker, Smith’s film takes the form of Errol Morris’ The Fog Of War, illustrating long, feverishly intense monologues with dazzling montages. Ruppert may appear like just another crackpot, the sort of obscure, raving prophet who regularly offers up worst-case scenarios in Glenn Beck’s War Room. (Or Stephen Colbert’s Doom Bunker, for that matter.) But he isn’t an ideologue, which makes his Chicken Little panic more authentic—as do his confident voice and meticulously crafted arguments. The scope of his argument is suspiciously immense, yet thought through to the smallest detail; every time a “Yeah, but” question comes up (as in “Yeah, but what about these alternative energy sources?” or “Yeah, but what about human innovation?”), Ruppert has an answer. “I don’t deal in conspiracy theory,” he says. “I deal in conspiracy fact.”
That said—and this is important to remember—Collapse is by no means an endorsement of Ruppert’s worldview. Smith (American Movie) has enough faith in his audience to allow them to sort it out for themselves. He gives Ruppert the floor, but his occasional interjections question whether his subject has walled himself into an argument by accepting only the information that supports his point of view. And in several exceptionally poignant moments, he also allows us to see an angry, lonely, vulnerable man whose life epitomizes the title as much as the globe does. There are many layers to the man and the movie, and it’s hard not to leave the theater shaken.