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By Daulton Dickey | July 19, 2005

Early in “Axis of Evil” someone opines, “The concept of evil defeats any kind of rational thought because the idea is that there are people who are inherently evil, that they are evil for some mysterious reason that is beyond understanding.”

The latter half of that statement is key to this documentary, which sets out to examine the meaning of evil in the 21st century. Throughout the course of this 80-minute documentary, more than a dozen journalists, artists, scholars, and activists work to define evil, to place in it a context relevant to our world—both pre- and post-911. Theories run the gamut from imprisoned criminals to racism to terrorism, but political motivation and point of view proves to be the central problem of the reasoning behind these theories.

America and rich white men are the source of all evil in this country—perhaps even the world. Or so “Axis of Evil” would have you believe. The talking heads featured in this documentary focus almost exclusively on class warfare, blaming circumstances for every man, woman, and child serving time in a prison or juvenile detention center, for example. Certainly circumstances play a factor in most, not all, criminal activities, but to blame it solely on class warfare is to undermine the very idea of criminal psychology and the notion of personal responsibility. Greed, not desperation, often leads one to a life of crime. Whether you make five thousand dollars a year or two hundred million dollars a year, the desire to crave more, more, more is inherent in our species—it is as ingrained in our DNA as the desire for food or companionship. The inability to maintain control over that temptation, and other nefarious temptations, is one definition of evil—a term so vague, so abstract that the notion of pinpointing its definition is an exercise in futility; evil is relative, not absolute; it’s relative to many factors: age, background, country of origin, the century into which one was born, etc., and to define it is a mistake of Biblical proportions.

But that is one small example of the topics considered in “Axis of Evil,” and my arguments above are not definitive; I have no desire to argue points made and views expressed in this documentary. But the diatribe above is a fine illustration of the allure of “Axis of Evil”: it is thought provoking. And whether you’re ideologically left of center, center, or right of center, “Axis of Evil” will have your mind spinning, for good or ill—if you’re left of center, you’ll nod and smile while watching it; if you’re right of center, however, you’ll probably find yourself yelling at the screen on more than one occasion.

For a documentary that sets out to examine such an ambiguous idea as ‘evil,’ the ideologies of those whose opinions are included are surprisingly on par with one another. You’ll get no opposing views here, no arguments meant to neutralize or reel in the more radical points of view, and that is this film’s biggest flaw. It is as though the thesis had been predetermined before the documentary was shot, and the filmmakers set out to find men and women whose views mirrored those of the filmmakers and the theses already in place.

Ideological documentaries such as “Axis of Evil” are less about objectivity and more about activism, which undermines the very idea of a documentary. A good debate is two sided. Arguments and counter-arguments must be expressed so that a consensus may be found. Once defined, it is the consensus that speaks a truth. And that consensus, not the arguments, will ultimately persuade those who may have held little belief in the initial arguments to reconsider their worldview. Simply put: an argument without a counter-argument is akin to taking one step forward and one step back; despite the ground you set out to conquer, you’re ultimately running in place, and in the end wind up preaching to the choir than converting non-believers.

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