There is a tactic that shock jocks, the writers of publications like the Enquirer and others in the media use to generate a buzz. They will say something outrageous, “Did you know that the left kidney of dolphins, when mixed with elephant tusk powder, will reverse the aging process? In fact that’s what Avon uses in all their creams.” And the crowd goes wild. It grabs people’s attention. They will argue over how wrong it is to kill endangered species merely for our own vanity. They will argue that all Avon’s products are animal friendly and would never contain such things. They will argue that the media has it all wrong and should stop spreading such false rumors. But whatever they argue about, they are playing right into the hands of those who started the whole thing. The same could be said about the book Freakonomics, not in such a malicious and utterly absurd fashion but still the ability to make people stop and say, “Wait! What?!?” is still a powerful tool to draw people in and getting them talking about what you want them talking about, to get them talking about you.
Freakonomics is split up into four sections; “A Roshanda by any other name” directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) which wonders if the name you are given will determine your fate, “Pure Corruption” directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that uncovers possible cheating in the upper echelons of professional sumo wrestling, “It’s not always a wonderful life” directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) which draws a line between the legalization of abortion and a decline in crime, and “Can a Ninth Grader by Bribed to Succeed?” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) where students are offered cold hard cash for higher grades. There was also an intro and transitional segments that were directed by Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). Let’s break down each segment.
Segment 1: In talking about names children are given, of course you have to also talk about the parents who give them those names and a notion is presented which got me thinking. The notion is, “If you go to the store to buy ten parenting books . . . it’s probably not going to help that much.” Reason being: The person who would seek out help has already made the proper decisions in life in order to be a good parent. However, it is the parent, the parent’s upbringing, the parent’s background that is the difference between a boy being named Le-Vaughn Jones and Charles Winterbottom III and that may in fact change the course of that child’s life. Morgan Spurlock plays all this up with as much humor as he does all his documentaries and makes this segment very fun to watch.
Segment 2: In every sumo-wrestling tournament each wrestler competes in 15 matches. By some simple math, if a competitor loses eight matches he is cut from the competition. Yet, eight times out of ten when a wrestler who has only won seven matches competes against a wrestler who has already won eight matches, the seven match winner will prevail. Why is that? The eight match winner should be a better wrestler. So the question is posed, “What do sumo wrestlers have in common with Bernie Madoff, Goldman Sachs and the near collapse of the global financial system?” The answer? The illusion of purity often allows corruption to flourish without anyone noticing . . . until it’s too late.
Segment 3: This segment is the one that really got me thinking. In 1966 Communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu made it illegal for women to have an abortion. On the other hand, in 1973 Roe vs Wade meant that a large number of unwanted babies were not born in America. In possibly correlated events, the crime in Romania skyrocketed in the 80s while it declined in America in the 90s. Is it possible that less children born to the poor and single mothers (60% of all abortions) means that there will be less criminals on the streets?
Segment 4: This final segment brings up one of the main points in the Freakonomics book: Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. Know the incentives and you will know how people will behave. This segment I don’t particularly agree with. They offered 9th graders $50 for every grade they receive above a C to see if the students would be motivated to work harder and raise their grades. Some were and some were not. However, even if they did raise their grades, what happens once they are not given money to do what they should already be doing out of pride?
All in all, what this documentary does spectacularly is to entertain and enlighten. Like I said before, not all the arguments are fool proof but that’s what makes them great conversation fodder. The animated graphics used to explain each of the hypotheses is done expertly too. Freakonomics is a great film to watch with a large group of friends who you can then grab a coffee with afterwards to have a round table discussion with. Just like the filmmakers want you to.