Early in The Yes Men Are Revolting, Jacques Servin, who works using the alias Andy Bichlbaum (and then frequently puts another alias on top of that), conducts a fake press conference at the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce. A room full of reporters listens attentively as Bichlbaum announces that the Chamber, which is the world’s largest lobbying organization and deep in the pockets of big oil, has reversed its position on climate change and supports a “carbon tax” designed to radically reduce emissions. This stunt is eventually interrupted by someone who actually works at the Chamber Of Commerce and proclaims Bichlbaum a fraud, but what’s remarkable is the fact that none of the reporters assembled there recognize him. After all, he wasn’t wearing a disguise, and he and his partner in righteous crime, Igor Vamos (a.k.a. Mike Bonanno), have made the headlines dozens of times, as well as two previous movies, The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix The World (2009). In a way, their continued ability to prank government agencies and the media speaks to how little they’ve achieved over the years, which becomes this third film’s subject.
For a long time, there’s relatively little culture jamming (as their brand of activism is known) in The Yes Men Are Revolting, which gets bogged down in the details of Bichlbaum’s and Bonanno’s personal lives. Bichlbaum gets dumped by his boyfriend, who can no longer tolerate constantly taking a distant second place to the various “actions” the Yes Men orchestrate, while Bonanno, who’s now married with two kids and a third on the way, moves to Scotland, his wife’s native country. Both men (who co-directed the film with Laura Nix) have overestimated public interest in what they do when they’re not posing as other people for the greater good; this diary material eventually ties into Revolting’s grand theme, but it’s often banal for its own sake. Likewise, a sequence that sees the Yes Men fly to Uganda to meet a fellow activist and see for themselves the damage that climate change has wreaked on a developing nation plays no differently from similar sequences in countless earnest advocacy docs. For the first time in the 15 or so years that Bichlbaum and Bonanno have been working together, they come across as tediously ordinary.
They do so with an endgame in mind, however. After one of their pranks fails spectacularly—they’d wanted to present a (fake) polar bear to the Amsterdam zoo, as a protest against Shell Oil’s partnership in the Arctic with the Russian oil/gas company Gazprom—the Yes Men more or less collapse. Bonanno living in Scotland creates an obvious logistical problem… but more than that, neither man can see that their years of hard work calling creative attention to society’s ills hasn’t had any significant effect. The Yes Men Are Revolting becomes the rare film to tackle how exhausting and dispiriting activism can be, no matter how fervently one believes in the causes one supports. Some Michael Moore-style monkeying with chronology is required to construct the arc they want, but it’s still cathartic when their mutual despair gets lifted by the Arab Spring and (especially) Occupy Wall Street, in which they take part. (The film would likely have had greater impact had they released it in 2012; why it’s taken so long isn’t clear.) By the end, their spirits are renewed and they’re ready to get back to work. Hopefully, any future films they make will foreground that work, consigning relationship woes and parenting anecdotes to the DVD bonus material.