WINNER: TOP 25 LIBERTARIAN DOCUMENTARIES
WINNER: ACADEMY AWARD BEST DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
A documentary examination of Karl Hess’s political beliefs and how he came to them. [ Karl Hess: Toward Liberty credits: Dir: Roland Halle, Peter W. Ladue/ 26 min/ Biography, Documentary-Educational/ Libertarian Heroes]
“The life and ideas of an old intellectual might seem like rather dry subject matter, but this telling is pretty entertaining.”
In the early 1960s, Karl Hess was a major intellectual of the old Right. He was a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater and for many other conservatives. He cofounded National Review. Later, he became interested in ideas of the new Left. He was an antiwar protestor, an advocate of “appropriate technology,” and a member of Students for a Democratic Society. What these seemingly opposite corners of the political spectrum had in common, he says, were “isolationism, opposition to central political authority, [and] genuine concern for people as individuals.” Such tenets and more would eventually lead Hess to the budding libertarian movement. That’s what this documentary is about, Hess’s intellectual trek “toward liberty.”
The theme that pervades Hess’s trek is a profound distrust of large organizations. Repeatedly, he expresses here a distrust not just of governments but also of corporations and universities, of anything big enough to “exercise power over people in an arbitrary way so that people are not responsible for their own actions but instead become simply the players in someone else’s scenario.” That concern attracted him to the various political movements in which he became involved, as well as to “appropriate technology”—that is, local technology solutions intended to enhance the physical independence of individuals. Hess’s interest in appropriate technology is extensively covered in the second half of the film.
The life and ideas of an old intellectual might seem like rather dry subject matter, but this telling is pretty entertaining. The principal genius here is that the makers of this film let Karl Hess do most of the talking. Hess is at once warm, self-deprecating, brilliant, and full of wit and interesting anecdotes. My favorite anecdote relates to Hess’s tangle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Following Goldwater’s demise, the IRS went after Hess in what he says was a politically motivated attack. So he wrote the agency a letter telling it that he was “abolishing it,” as recommended by the Declaration of Independence! Indeed, Hess truly lived his own ideals.
Karl Hess: Toward Liberty is a very short film, at just twenty-six minutes, but it nonetheless succeeds in giving the viewer a flavor of what Karl Hess was all about. Artfully mixed in with Hess’s reminiscences are a selection of old photos, videotaped speeches, and brief reenactments. This film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
How to See It
“The 26 minute film, Ladue’s and Halle’s master thesis, was produced at Boston University’s College of Communications, Graduate Film Program….Karl Hess: Toward Liberty tells a transparently subjective story, presenting the point of view of one man who experienced American politics from both the inside and out.”