Influence, written and directed by Montreal-based documentary filmmakers Diana Neille and Richard Poplak, sets forth a captivating portrayal of Lord Tim Bell, the British advertising executive who co-founded the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, and helped to put Margaret Thatcher into 10 Downing Street. Influence does not get lost in the PR giant’s allure; the documentary is scathing and rich, albeit oversaturated at times.
The documentary, which premiered on May 21 as part of Hot Docs Festival Online, invites viewers into the fascinating world of Bell while also sounding the alarm against the regime-influencing communication he pioneered. The opening sequence encapsulates this. Influence begins with a slow close-up of Bell, who at first appears mysterious and unknowable, sitting at a distance from the viewer. But as he comes into focus and falls into a coughing fit, tapping his cigarette butts into an ashtray, the allure fades away, and the mirage is displaced by an image of decay and poison. This vivid skepticism towards Bell and the duplicity he embodies is what makes the documentary great.
This glimpse into the mind of the PR executive who capitalized on a divided and vulnerable public to win elections is relevant in the age of fake news. The project uses stock footage and interviews with Bell and his adversaries to chart Bell’s ascent from salesman to spin-doctor. Bell emerged from making jean adverts with his advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, eventually lending his PR expertise to authoritarian politicians such as Chilean despot Augusto Pinochet and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. He transformed the public images of despots, rogues, and politicians alike, giving them a more palatable air. To do this, Bell employed a brutal style. The documentary illustrates his methods by featuring Bell’s legendary “Labour Isn’t Working” ad campaign, which presaged Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979.
Influence explores the relationship between advertisement and state politics, placing this phenomenon within a context of rising public distrust. The film shows the eerie consequences of Bell’s work, such as during the Gupta controversy. A family of businessmen, the Guptas ran a shadow government in South Africa, employing Bell Pottinger to run campaigns that presented them as victims of “white monopoly capital,” fomenting racial tensions in the process. Bell Pottinger’s role would later be exposed, forcing the PR firm to file for bankruptcy. Flashing between campaign ads and footage of strife in South Africa, the documentary shows, through the Gupta controversy and the fall of Bell Pottinger, the destructive link between cunning advertising and social unrest. Influence condemns Bell Pottinger bluntly and vividly, featuring jarring footage and images that highlight the dangers of public deception.
But there is only so much scheming one can take in a single sitting, and Influence suffers from over-saturation. The film scrambles to fit every facet of the Bell Pottinger story into an overstuffed 92-minute runtime. It juggles too much: Bell’s career; the PR guru’s relationship with Pinochet; the birth of corporate PR and strategic communications; attempts to sell the Iraqis on the American message of regime change through commercials and soap operas; the emergence of Russian information warfare; and more. Although untangling the complicated web of modern day spin-doctoring is a laudable task, the project would benefit from information downsizing. The documentary’s patchwork approach only weakens its timely message.
Figures like Bell have always lurked in the shadows of giants. The wider-scale trend of disinformation and half-truths that plague current mainstream media makes Influence ambitious and intriguing, despite its overly vast scope. The documentary goes far beyond chronicling the rise and fall of Bell’s career: It sheds light on a mirage of influence that risks poisoning hearts and minds. For a deeper understanding of the dark underbelly of modern-day advertisers, Influence is a required summer viewing.