Chris Smith’s documentary Collapse is as much a documentary about Michael Ruppert as it is Michael Ruppert’s (conspiracy) theories. I’ve had occasion to to see several conspiracy theory documentaries over the years and one of the more interesting aspects that ties many of them together is that, in most instances, the conspiracy theorists would do better with a less is more approach. The less they speak, the more believable they are. If only these documentaries were 20 to 30 minutes long, instead of 80 to 90. (See also: Loose Change).
That’s the case with Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD, an independent publisher, author, and former lecturer who, years ago, accurately predicted that we’d run into a financial crisis sparked by mortgage-backed securities. That’s the sort of resume that gains your trust a little. And for the first half hour or so of Collapse, Ruppert spins an amazing — and somewhat believable — tale about the imminent suicide of mankind. He predicts, essentially, that the Earth is on the other side of peak oil (probably true), the world’s oil supply is rapidly being depleted, and more harrowing — perhaps — is that neither the economy nor humanity will be able to sustain itself once we’ve run out of oil because there is no realistic replacement. (I hope that’s not true)
It truly is a compelling argument. He asserts, for instance, that the fact that Saudi Arabia has already moved offshore to drill for oil suggests that its land reserves are close to being tapped (after all, why move offshore if you can drill on land much less expensively?). Moreover, 25 percent of the world’s oil resides in Saudi Arabia. And if they’re running out of oil, you bet your ass that the rest of the world is, too.
But where he really instills the fear of God in his audience is where he accurately points out that, it’s not just our modes of transportation that rely on oil. It’s plastics. It’s materials. It’s tires (it takes 7 gallons of oil to manufacture one tire, for instance). Without oil, not only could we not operate our automobiles, we couldn’t build them. Pesticides, toothpaste, etc. are all made from oil. “There is nothing anywhere, in any combination, that will replace the edifice of fossil fuels,” he argues. It’ll be difficult to grow food. Get anywhere. Or heat our homes. And there’s no real answer, he claims. Ethanol, he says, takes more energy to produce than it creates, and it would require using all the arable land in the United States to sustain our energy use with it. Canadian tar fields won’t work, either, because they use natural gas to refine it. Hydrogen is useless because, even if you could operate a car with it, you can’t build a car without oil, which goes in the plastics, the tires, and the resins. And electricity is not an energy source: It’s generated by burning or using some other kind of energy, he asserts.
And after detailing our energy crisis, the consequences of which will be more than dire — it’ll be bread lines, wheelbarrows full of money, revolutions, mass chaos, the end of democracy, etc. etc., — Mr. Ruppert kind of goes off the rails. He starts talking about the gold standard, about how many people the CIA has had killed, about how the Bush administration is after him, about his access to confidential files, about how Dick Cheney personally wanted him killed, and about how organic gardening seeds will essentially become the currency of the future.
In effect, Chris Smith — who also directed American Movie and Yes Men — gives Ruppert so much rope that he has no choice but to hang himself. The longer that the documentary goes on, the more apparent it is that Smith is not as interested in Ruppert’s crackpot “conspiracy facts,” as much as he is in the man spouting them. The entire documentary is one long extended interview with Ruppert, and we watch this man as he sort of unravels into a weepy mess who is given to epiphanies during the interview process. Also, he has a newsletter. If there’s one thing we know from Hollywood films, a man with a newsletter is never one to be believed. Unless he’s on “The X-Files.” Smith deftly films — and even provokes off-camera — Ruppert’s lapse into blubbery madness using an Errol Morris approach to his subject.
In the end, Collapse is a terrifying documentary about the end of the industrialized world … until it’s not anymore. And that’s what makes the documentary so riveting: You watch a smart, confident, and articulate man who clearly has a wealth of information completely destroy his own credibility not by undermining his own arguments, but by overreaching, which makes Collapse a fascinating documentary on both levels — as an exploration of our energy crisis, and as a study of Michael Ruppert.