“A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps” opens with testimonials from alumni of the U.S. volunteer mission. When they describe the “uncomfortable” conditions of Third World countries, the film offers images of slums. When they talk about having to relinquish their American identities and empathize with “ordinary people” of other cultures, it obliges with swelling, inspirational music.
This air of paternalism pervades Alana DeJoseph’s sweeping, though mostly superficial history, even as it touches upon the contradictions inherent in the program’s origins as a Cold War tactic of soft power. DeJoseph charts the political negotiations during other moments when the mission’s diplomatic and altruistic motives appeared at odds — the Vietnam War; the fall of Eastern bloc Communism. But the documentary maintains an uncritical and even hagiographic view of the program’s stated premise, barely interrogating its ethics or on-the-ground efficacy.
Narrated by Annette Bening, “A Towering Task” unfolds like a dull, chronological slide show of archival images, basic graphics and seemingly infinite talking heads (including high-profile figures like President Jimmy Carter). The film speeds past significant turning points within the program, such as recent investigations into sexual assault, and pays disproportionately little heed to voices from the communities that host the volunteers.
The movie ends with a plea for the Peace Corps’ philosophy of globalism in the face of rising nationalism in America. But DeJoseph’s reluctance to grapple with the complex ways in which humanitarian efforts can entrench American exceptionalism makes the film feel myopic.
A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on virtual cinemas.
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