The Anarchist Cookbook is among the most controversial books ever published, detailing how to make bombs and weapons. So it’s surprising that the subject of American Anarchist, the book’s author William Powell, is a mild-mannered man living a middle-class existence in France.
Charlie Siskel’s documentary is an extended interview with Powell, whose book has been linked to countless acts of destruction. However, the material that Siskel has gathered is far too thin for a feature-length documentary, making the film dull and overlong. At the end it’s a shock to learn only 80 minutes have passed.
Powell himself comes across as intelligent. He exhibits remorse over how the book has become a guide for dangerous individuals, but he doesn’t admit to being guilt-ridden, no matter how hard Siskel presses him with leading questions. This insistence cripples the already slight documentary. Siskel asks similarly phrased questions, while Powell repeatedly gives him the same answers about personal responsibility, and how he doesn’t go looking for stories about his book. Powell himself comes across well in the documentary, but the repetition is irritating.
It gets worse as Siskel begins to lose grasp of the film’s structure. At one point he randomly revisits the topic of Powell’s childhood, leading to Powell revealing that he was sexually abused as a child. The way this information is included in the film feels like Siskel placed it as a “Gotcha!” moment and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Powell sadly passed away in July this year, so he can’t comment on how Siskel portrayed his life. If this had been a short documentary made by a filmmaker with some scruples, then there could have been a work worthy of its subject.
DIRECTOR: Charlie Siskel
SYNOPSIS: An interview with the author of The Anarchist Cookbook.