“A Towering Task” puts a human face on the Peace Corps – and makes sense of its history of idealism, improvisation, politics, and at times its failings. It is the most coherent and satisfying documentary I know, of the Peace Corps, and I can’t imagine a better one. For its truth and its scope, its arc is complete – from the germ of an idea to help the world, spoken late at night by JFK on his presidential campaign, to its execution later, an Act signed into law and carried out – thousands of young women and men leaving for remote places, to teach, to advise, to inspire – and to be inspired themselves by their work.
I was an early volunteer, my group was “Nyasaland III” (1963) – we went to Central Africa and saw Nyasaland become the independent republic of Malawi; so I am well aware of the many motivations that impelled people to sign up. But I was only dimly aware of how the Peace Corps had to fight for its survival, under pressure from Nixon and Reagan – who wanted to shut it down. And I knew very little of what this film bravely uncovers, the abuses that some volunteers had to endure in terms of rape and assault, by people they worked among.
The film is enlightening, too, for being in large part the portrait of a period when America was outward looking and uncynical and generous, on the occasion of his inauguration the president saying, ” How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.” It is impossible to imagine any politician – anyone at all – saying that today. But this film shows the roots of such idealism, which is why it is so enlightening and uplifting. – Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
A Towering Task
Reviewed by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)