Two scenes in David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s documentary merican Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein are so electric, so coursing with overheated rhetoric, that the filmmakers run extended snippets of them twice: a lecture at Canada’s University of Waterloo, a free-and-open-to-the-public meltdown at which the documentary’s subject, Norman Finkelstein, essentially tells a riled student she’s crying “crocodile tears”; and Finkelstein’s quivering-voice, no-eye-contact 2003 attempted takedown of Alan Dershowitz on the radio program “Democracy Now!” (“I’m a professor, sir. I know what plagiarism is”). The issue raising blood pressures is, naturally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically the embattled academic Finkelstein’s fierce criticisms of Israel’s human rights record and what he sees as the shameless exploitation of Holocaust memory for political and financial gain.
Though Ridgen and Rossier’s inclusion of shots of Finkelstein looking world-wearily out of plane and car windows and walking down long hallways betrays no small amount of professor-as-intrepid-truth-teller veneration on their part, the film focuses less on the substance of Finkelstein’s controversial ideas than the complex psychology that formed their foundation. Born to two concentration-camp survivors and raised in the middle-class Jewish “elbow neighborhood” of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, Finkelstein took his mother’s reaction to news of developing armed conflicts—“almost a hysterical rage”—to heart, though he admits his mother later feared the intensity of his commitment to the two-state solution. One Israeli woman, billed as a friend of the man’s, dubs him a “Jew-hating Jew.” Even colleagues who endorse Finkelstein’s scholarly methods and conclusions—including his mentor, Noam Chomsky—express misgivings about the man’s tone, be it in his polemical writings or his from-the-lectern broadsides of ideological opponents, which, as the film exhibits during the radio program and on the Canadian lecture circuit, can verge recklessly on the ad hominem. The blowback is professional (the Dershowitz dustup derails his bid for tenure at DePaul) and personal (he cryptically alludes to “many disappointments with people”); a line of unpopular academic inquiry is, after all, a very short fuse.
There can be no doubt about Finkelstein’s commitment to his work, but American Radical also shows him frequently, and rather perversely, caught up in the theater surrounding it. Finkelstein’s amused “They’re nuts!” aside to the camera after stepping off the University of Waterloo podium suggests a mad political scientist who thrives on raising his voice and going on the defensive. This itch for a good fight and his demonstrated flair for collapsing convictions into ready-made-to-boomerang catchphrases—“The Hezbollah represents the hope,” he tells some assembled media near the film’s end—point more toward willful self-destruction than mere shooting from the hip. Ridgen and Rossier’s film is nothing special to look at, with some intended atmospherics around Finkelstein’s Coney Island home hampered by the muddy digital video, but, as the film follows the itinerant academic from Japan to Lebanon, a compelling psychological portrait develops.
February 11-17 at Anthology Film Archives