One of the finest documentaries of the year, this involving film is lucid, sharply well shot and edited, and ultimately so important that it's rather terrifying to watch. It starts as an exploration of the state of the war on drugs then follows the trail of destruction to the prison industry. It's a thrilling piece of cinema.
One of the worst ironies of American history is that, right after Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in the late 1960s, drug use escalated precipitously, sending hundreds of thousands to prison as laws grew increasingly draconian. Today, the USA houses 25 per cent of the world's prison population - more than larger, seemingly more prison-happy countries like Russia or China - and experts are unanimous in noting that these laws specifically target poor and marginalised people. So sending them to prison only creates huge problems for society at large.
In tackling such a hot potato topic, filmmaker Jarecki (Freakonomics) wisely avoids bombarding us with statistics, even though they're here. Instead, he takes an intensely personal approach, focussing on people whose lives have been derailed by laws that tear apart families by jailing non-violent criminals far longer than necessary. This has scary ramifications as prisons have become a massive corporate industry that lobbies the government for even stricter penalties. More prisoners mean higher profits.
And there's more. Historian Miller notes that this process parallels Nazi Germany by identifying a target group then ostracising, confiscating and concentrating them. No one is suggesting that annihilation is next, but the impact is pretty much the same. This is an unusually sharp and sophisticated film that presents a complex situation in a clear and plain-spoken way. And its most potent observation is that the war on drugs is destroying society by merely addressing symptoms rather than causes. It's the kind of film that makes our blood boil at the narrow-minded self-interest of politicians. Which is exactly what films like this should do.