Film, Reviews
Aug 9, 2012

DEATH BY CHINA, DOCUMENTARY REVIEW

Peter Navarro’s scathing documentary Death By China pulls no punches: China is destroying America. The best-selling author and filmmaker points out America’s increasingly destructive trade relationship with China is responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs all across the country.

According to Navarro, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. economist, the trouble began in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization with the strong support of the then president, Bill Clinton. Since 2001 China has been flooding American markets with its illegally subsidized exports while big multinational companies have been offshoring American factories and jobs to China.

As a result over 50,000 American factories have shut down since 2001 and America now owes over $3 trillion to the Chinese government. While the film does make a point stating that the problem is with the totalitarian Chinese government, not with the Chinese people themselves, that does not stop it from being entirely too black and white.

The biggest problem with Death By China is that while its message is an important one it doesn’t have that many facts to back it up. Good filmmakers and good journalist know that in order to make a claim you must show your sources, something never immediately clear when watching the film. Navarro brings on plenty of experts as testimony but the evidence never seems appropriately balanced.

A filmmaker should never be a prisoner of his own devices. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Navarro falls into. His film spends almost 90 minutes drilling into the audience just how bad China is; he fills the screen with graphics of a hypothetical China bombing the U.S. and invading our businesses. He continually uses phrases like “weapons of job destruction” and other word play that, though subtle, is just enough to count as propaganda.

Choosing Martin Sheen as a narrator for the film was another wise if not carefully calculated choice. Since playing President Bartlett on The West Wing almost a decade ago he has been typecast in roles such as this that play off of his authoritative persona. Navarro may not have an actual president to back him up on his claims but he has found a way to hire a ‘stand-in’ one instead.

The last twenty minutes of the film reiterate what has just been told to the audience for the past hour. For me, it felt as if there was only a page worth of actual data and someone tried to make a full length movie out of it.

Despite all that, the film does make some justifiable claims. The film itself is meant to be a call to action and that is possibly why it took such a harsh stance. Still, there are more tactful ways of making an argument.

In the end, the execution muddles the message for Death By China. What could have been a groundbreaking film on a subject that needs more attention turns into an under-achieving production. While an admirable effort, the film seems rushed and large issues are often glossed over to get to the next topic. Death By China tries to give Asian markets a striking blow but ends up barely scratching the surface.

The film opens this Friday August 17th in limited release. Watch the trailer.

If you are an LA local, go see the film at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Director Pete Navarro will be there for a special Q & A on both Friday and Saturday. Following the Saturday 7:30pm show there will be special guests from the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tibetan dissident communities to also participate in the Q & A.