A documentary that divides audiences, Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s uncompromising and shocking historical record of the USA’s violent past depicts exploitative qualities with a motivation and intelligence that marks the film as relevant today as it was when first released in 1982.
Gunshot wounds, gratuitous head shots and real time footage of police brutality are old hat. Assassination attempts, mass murderers and people slaughtering innocent bystanders can be watched on repeat through YouTube and other less than reputable websites. While as a society we have been numbed to acts of senseless violence as social media continues to make everything feel impersonal. So the question is, how much impact would a dated thirty-year-old documentary have on anyone?
What must be established from the off is that The Killing of America is about much more than just shocking images. Director Sheldon Renan and co-writer Leonard Schrader have a much more subtle agenda at work beyond the need to repulse. It’s true that they chart the rise in violent crime starting with the assassination of JFK through to John Lennon, incorporating mass murderers, serial killers and sniper rifle fanatics along the way. But Renan and Schrader imply that these people who come across as perfectly sane in interview footage, are in some way products of a society in decline.
Someone once said that violence breeds violence and there are those who may come away feeling emotionally manipulated, upset, or indifferent. But there is no denying that The Killing of America still has something to say. If nothing else it reminds us that humanity is cruel, capricious and capable of atrocities which have the little to do with government guidelines or any known belief system. There will be those who dismiss this documentary as ridiculously outdated propaganda and sensationalist fearmongering, but that would be missing the point.
This is not so much about America but rather the human condition as a whole. People have been killing each other over religion for centuries but at least they had a belief system which made some sense. What Renan depicts here is a snapshot in time with a modicum of social relevance attached. There would be no benefit in releasing a thirty-year-old documentary, ‘mondo’ or otherwise, because the intention here is not to make anyone rich. Much like Schindler’s List, itself a dramatisation of fictionalised real life events, America is designed to inform, remind and educate those who fail to believe anything existed before Facebook and finite battery life.
In filmic terms then The Killing of America still represents nothing less than a sharp slap to the face, cold cup of coffee to the nervous system, or if you will, a historical reality check for the comfortably numb.