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Arthur Brooks has never been a man short on ideas. While that has served him well as a best-selling author (The Road to Freedom, The Conservative Heart) and president of the American Enterprise Institute, it’s clearly a challenge for him to pack his wide-ranging social and economic ideas into 76 minutes.
On paper, his new documentary, The Pursuit, is about human potential and the dignity of work. Or it’s about common misconceptions about capitalism. Or it’s about why the Scandinavian model works for small, homogenous nations like Norway and Denmark but isn’t transferable to the United States. Or it’s about how no culture is capable of being truly secular and how worship divorced from religious doctrine can drive national politics.
It’s all heady stuff marked by engaging statistics and scenes, such as when Brooks breaks down the surprising degree to which extreme poverty has been eradicated in the modern world. He impressively links this back to his experience as a young man in socialist Spain before probing current-day Spanish protesters about the limits of their disdain for free enterprise.
But then Brooks jumps to other, equally thoughtful topics—each significant enough for its own film, but only tangentially related to the others. One particularly striking section comes when he interviews groups of Danes who gather in libraries on weekday mornings to sing what sound like hymns about paying taxes. Before we can digest that strange scene, Brooks whisks us back to American shores, where he argues that while other countries are largely defined by ethnic national identity, the United States is founded on ideas.
As Brooks argues that the rising tide of populism is a serious threat to what makes the United States exceptional, the camera flashes to an American flag–clad demonstrator shouting, “If you don’t speak English and don’t contribute, get out.” We then see white supremacists carrying torches at a Unite the Right rally, chanting, “One people, one nation, end immigration.” From there the camera quickly pans across a screaming shirtless man, buffed-out, neck veins popping, and covered in tattoos like a character from a prison yard.
Brooks uses the images to segue into another thesis: The greatest political divide in modern America isn’t between the right and left but between those who want a more open society and those who don’t.
President Donald Trump is never named, but it seems clear this argument is meant to address his voters. It’s the weakest segment of the film since, at least on camera, Brooks doesn’t personally engage them as he does the European socialists.
While Brooks interviews some Kentucky coal miners about the economic stagnation they’ve experienced in recent decades, he never invites any declared Trump voters or closed-border hard-liners to explain their rationale. Nor does he consider whether they might believe they’re trying to protect the ideas America was founded on rather than protect their own ethnic dominance. Instead, he infers their motivations and lets the extreme images speak for themselves. It feels a bit like a stacked deck, given that he avoids using similar radical footage of the far left.
There’s a lot worth considering in The Pursuit, available on streaming since May 7. But the film doesn’t build arguments likely to persuade viewers who don’t already share Brooks’ views. Other documentaries cover slices of the same territory with greater depth. The Pursuit is probably best viewed as a companion piece for Brooks’ new book Love Your Enemies, where he no doubt has much more time to share his impressive mind more fully.