The Banality of Evil as a Pseudo Documentary: A Review of Punishment Park (1971)

Visions of dystopias have been a common staple in science fiction films for decades, so much so that they have become their own subgenre. From the earliest examples such as Metropolis (1927) up until recent adaptations of popular young adult novels such as The Hunger Games, bleak and disturbing depictions of our collective future have made regular appearances on the silver screen, so much so that they're rarely regarded with surprise or offense. Yet there's one dystopian film that was met with extreme opposition and disdain upon its release, so much so that it remains obscure to this day: Punishment Park, a 1971 pseudo documentary that was written and directed by Peter Watkins. Read on for my review of this remarkable and frequently overlooked film.

Punishment Park takes place in an alternate version of 1970, when President Nixon decrees a state of emergency based on the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which authorizes federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons who are judged to be a "risk to internal security", as a way of quelling public opposition to the Vietnam War. Under this decree, people who have openly opposed the war (e.g., draft dodgers, activists, folk singers, radio DJs, etc.) are subjected to a civilian tribunal with no representation, evidence or witnesses. At the end of each trail, the accused are given a choice: to either accept a long prison term or to participate in something called "Punishment Park", a capture-the-flag exercise that's conducted in the desert and holds the dubious promise of freedom for those who successfully complete it. Punishment Park is told from the perspective of a documentary film crew that has received permission from the U.S. government to film the trials and the Punishment Park activity in action.

Yes, Punishment Park is a dystopian film, but its power lies in its determination to look and feel so mundane. This is not some far-flung future that's populated by advanced technology, stylized landscapes, battle-ready savior figures, and over-the-top action scenes to distract audiences away from the grislier aspects of the situation; instead, it remains firmly rooted in late '60s/early '70s America, with people, dialog and settings that look and sound completely in place with that era. Watson set up his actors in a way that allowed for passionate discussions about various aspects of the Vietnam War and its associated anti-war movement, why some people felt compelled to speak out against government-sanctioned aggression while others view the dissent as unpatriotic and punishable by law.

I believe that Watkins' determination to keep a sense of familiarity throughout the film is why it bothered--and still bothers--so many people. What he captured on film in his alternate, fictitious history is what is known as "the banality of evil". This phrase first appeared in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, although the best explanation I could find that fits Punishment Park was provided by Edward S. Herman in his book Triumph of the Market.

From Herman's perspective, the banality of evil can exist when "(d)oing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalization.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.' There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public."

Within the narrative of Punishment Park, average, everyday people are sentenced to either long prison terms--or death--for speaking out against a war, and this sentencing is carried out by people who also appear to be just as normal. Furthermore, the style of the documentary itself is extremely aloof: there is no background music to cue the audiences as to when the dramatic beats happen, and the crew that's filming the trials and Punishment Park are (for the most part) very passive throughout everything that happens. The crew doesn’t even think to offer water to the convicted Punishment Park participants as they boil under the desert sun. It's a chilling thing to watch by itself; even more unsettling is that much of the dialog that's aimed at the Vietnam War is just as applicable to the recent U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, the phrase "we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here"--a rationale that has been frequently cited as America's ongoing military actions in the Middle East--rears its head during the trials in Punishment Park.

A quote by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.", has been frequently cited as how the freedom of speech is meant to be understood and protected within a democracy. Punishment Park shows in grim detail what happens when that principle disappears within a government that still insists that it is the world's indisputable guardian of democratic freedom, and how people are rewarded or penalized for accepting that blatant contradiction as the norm. As such, it's one of the best dystopian films ever made, a film that still shocks and informs several decades later.


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