The average American has probably never heard of Bell Pottinger, a now-defunct UK public relations firm with clients ranging from megacorporations like Huawei or Coca-Cola, to governments of nations like Bahrain, Belarus and Sri Lanka. Nor have they heard of Timothy Bell, leader of the firm and notorious in the UK for spearheading former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign.
“Influence” tackles the story of Tim Bell and his controversial PR firm through interviews with Bell himself and several other key players in the Bell-Pottinger rise and fall. The documentary, in its 105-minute runtime, tries to unravel one of the most complex cases of “geopolitical spin-doctoring” — as other outlets are calling it — the world has ever seen.
The film takes on an enormous challenge just by the nature of its subject matter. The complexities of the scandal that led to the South African president’s resignation could alone make a multi-episode docuseries. But “Influence” attempts to cover several other stories: Tim Bell’s history, Margaret Thatcher’s election, the failed campaign of 1989 Chilean presidential candidate Hernán Büchi and a propaganda campaign in Iraq ordered by the Pentagon for $540 million. So many controversial campaigns were touched on that I’m not sure I remember them all.
Writing a documentary chiefly based on interviews with the “bad guy” of the story himself is an interesting approach. For those unfamiliar, it isn’t clear from the beginning of the film that Tim Bell was the mastermind behind so many nefarious acts. Nowhere is it ever stated outright that what Bell was doing was malicious; viewers are left to make their own conclusions. By the end, I had made mine. Bell invented some of the most dangerous, regime-influencing communications techniques in the world.
This is a story that is ripe for exciting historical analysis. Unfortunately, “Influence” bites off more than it can chew, and the consequence is confusion and boredom. Most of the events that are covered have minimal context provided to them. It expects the viewer to already be in tune with international political affairs that are either decades old, obscure to international audiences or exceedingly complicated.
Take the controversy in South Africa for example. In short, a family of businessmen (“The Guptas”) running a shadow government in South Africa employed Bell Pottinger to run campaigns that inflamed racial tensions between whites and Blacks. Some bare-minimum explanations were given, like explaining who the Guptas are. But by the time the film fully broke down Bell Pottinger’s role, I was left wondering why the Guptas employed Bell Pottinger in the first place. Was I supposed to understand why the Guptas would want to start an ethnic conflict from an expected prior knowledge of South African politics? Or was it just shoddy journalism on the filmmakers’ part, failing to dig into the important questions?
I thought maybe I was fighting to stay awake throughout the movie because I was just tired, but watchers behind me in the small audience of 10 or so press and industry guests confirmed my suspicions by also talking about falling asleep numerous times. The documentary took on a subject that was just too big for its boots, and in my confusion I lost interest. I’d be excited if the same material were taken on by more experienced filmmakers and expanded into a docuseries with greater clarity. But otherwise, “Influence” doesn’t do justice to the riveting history of Bell Pottinger to make it worth watching.