The abortive 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the subject of this fascinating, intense but disturbingly incomplete and one-sided documentary by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain. The filmmakers were engaged in making a close-up biographical sketch of Chavez when the attempt to overthrow the left-wing populist leader occurred and they, along with him and his staff, were trapped inside the presidential palace. The footage they got of the tense situation that followed–negotiations led to Chavez’s arrest, and quickly a counter-coup rose up in the streets–is, in the words that President Wilson is supposed to have used about “Birth of a Nation,” like history written with lightning, and makes for an absorbing seventy-four minutes.
Yet it has to be said that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is only a partial picture of what happened. Clearly Bartley and O’Briain were fans of Chavez from the start, and saw his denunciations of “neo-liberalism”–the revival of pure, Smithian capitalism he sees as the essence of conventional “globalism”–as a heroic defense of the poor against economic exploitation. Their admiration might have been why they gloss over the more questionable aspects of his career (his failed 1992 coup gets only the briefest mention) and carefully arrange their footage of his opponents (mostly the wealthy elites) to make them appear almost unutterably smug and contemptuous of those they consider their inferiors. The sense of triumph at Chavez’s eventual victory over his foes is palpable, and of amazed adulation at his post-coup generosity even more so. It’s also true that the picture’s suggestion of American involvement in the coup–while perhaps, even probably, correct–isn’t examined with sufficient rigor. On the basis of the meager evidence offered here, the verdict on that score would have to be “Not proven.”
Despite the bias and the lacunae, though, the documentary is worth seeing for its vitality and its commitment. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is engaged filmmaking of a sort that’s gotten rarer and rarer in an age when blandness and a reluctance to express strong opinions have come to dominate. It’s invigorating to watch, provided you realize that it’s an accomplished, involving but highly selective account of a still-charged historical event.