Canal Zone

Frederick Wiseman had made long movies before this 1977 documentary (Juvenile Court, Welfare), but Canal Zone was his first real epic, a panoramic view of the American military, industrial, and civilian institutions around the Panama Canal Zone. He begins with a stunning 25-minute passage that shows how the canals work, cutting between towering images of them and thumbnail portraits of the people involved in their operation. Moving onto dry land, Wiseman observes narrow-mindedness, chauvinism, and blind faith in authority nearly everywhere he goes, and civilians tend to come off worse than military and government figures. This is one of his most wickedly funny films, but there’s more to it than that; Wiseman seems astonished by the intricate interactions that make up a society.