‘Influence’: Film Review of man who masked ‘South African governmental corruption with race-baiting fake news’

12 February 2020

Content - Film


This glossy, bustling documentary ambitiously tackles the late Tim Bell's unscrupulous political PR career, but suffers from information overload.

When Tim Bell died in London last summer, the media response was largely, somewhat sheepishly, polite: It was hard not to envision the ruthless political spin doctor still massaging his legacy from beyond the grave. “Irrepressible” was the first adjective chosen in the New York Times obituary. “He had far too few scruples about who he would represent,” tweeted journalist Robert Peston, “but he was the best company, always honest with me, enormous fun.” These were among several dedications to portray the former head of disgraced PR powerhouse Bell Pottinger — a man who offered his services to the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, and met his professional downfall by masking South African governmental corruption with race-baiting fake news — as a kind of incorrigible rogue, as if his amoral taste for profoundly bad company amounted to mere rakish bravado.

This is not a trap, thankfully, that “Influence” falls into, though it’s been made with Bell’s admittedly charismatic participation. Sprawlingly ambitious within a tight format, Diana Neille and Richard Poplak’s documentary aims for a thorough post-mortem into everything that went wrong — strategically, financially, ethically — in his 50-year career in advertising and public relations, but doesn’t stop there. Spidering outwards to investigate the ramifications of Bell’s style of political spin in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iraq, with a further leap across to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and its role in against-odds victories for Brexit and Donald Trump, “Influence” is so heavily stuffed it’s practically leaking information at the seams.

At under two hours, that approach makes for a busy, newsy watch, but viewers arriving with little advance knowledge of the headline cases unpacked here may find themselves adrift in its globe-turning tangle of facts and untruths alike. There’s a series’ worth of material here, though other films have already examined certain aspects in this crazy-quilt of corruption in more illuminating detail. If the Cambridge Analytica insights here feel scant, that’s because “The Great Hack” already had that beat covered. The state capture of the South African government by the infamous Gupta brothers is a more central concern of Neille and Poplak’s film, but even that subject gets more expansive (albeit less polished) treatment in Rehad Desai’s recent IDFA premiere “How to Steal a Country.” Read the full review on Variety here.