"To tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men," once wrote statesman Edmund Burke, and multi-hyphenate Aaron Russo is clearly one very displeased guy judging by "Aaron Russo's America From Freedom to Fascism." Libertarian-positioned docu argues almost persuasively that U.S. citizens are not legally required to pay federal income tax, and much less convincingly that country is becoming a police state via new identity laws. Pic should nevertheless stir interest when released domestically by indie distribs Cinema Libre, which has handled such similar dissenting, grassroots-marketed polemics as "Outfoxed" and "Embedded."
Eclectic resume of pic's writer-helmer-producer-narrator-presenter Russo includes manufacturing underwear, managing Bette Midler in her early years, producing boffo comedy "Trading Places," running for president on the Libertarian ticket in 2004, and making a melange of standup comedy and speechifying in "Aaron Russo's Mad as Hell," which was self-distributed on video.
With his warm Brooklyn accent and affectedly folksy manner, Russo has a genial-cum-pugnacious presence onscreen and a knack for boiling down complex arguments and issues into easily digestible, "Global Economics for Dummies" sound bites.
Cornerstone contention in "Freedom to Fascism" is that the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was never properly ratified, an argument popularized in Bill Benson's controversial book "The Law That Never Was," that's cited here. Along with the foundation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913, introduction of federal tax system is described by Bob Schulz of the We the People Foundation, as the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated by government against the working men and women of America."
To support this point, Russo deploys interviews with former IRS agents who have joined pressure groups to fight imposition of federal tax. Other means of cinematic persuasion include cartoons, solemnly presented quotes from various illustrious (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Goethe no less) and (in pic's view) notorious figures (banker David Rockefeller). All this is backed by ominous music, and quick inserts from popular movies to underscore points humorously. This is redolent of campaign advertising, but less convincing as journalism.One doesn't have to be a pro-Federalist to feel Russo's tendency to use shot-reverse-shots in interviews with those opposed to his view -- such as gamely participating former Tax Commissioner Sheldon Cohen --creates the impression that rhetorical sleight of hand is being used to undermine counter-argument.
However, the strong case built in pic's first half is weakened by the vaguely argued contention in the second that the land of the free is becoming anything but. Attack focuses on the Federal Reserve, the Patriot Act, the abolition of the gold standard, and not-yet-ratified plans to introduce identity chips on currency and in citizens in the future.
Film ends with rabble-rousing call to Americans to rise up through civil disobedience, refuse to vote for politicians not calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, resist imposition of ID cards, abolish computer voting, and don't believe the media. In short, vote Libertarian. Tech package is on a par with low-budget TV docs.
Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), James Salisbury; editors, Russo, Gabe Miller; music, David Benoit; sound, Pam Hudgens; sound editor, Suren. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 22, 2006. Running time: 107 MIN.