The Rise of Jordan Peterson constructs a kaleidoscopic narrative that enables the viewer to look at the same sequence of events in several different ways. Engaging with the film fully demands a willingness to listen to a wide and often conflicting range of perspectives. Those who insist on placing Peterson in an airtight box, and seeing him solely as either a holy prophet or a demonic villain, will almost certainly neither like nor understand this film. After all, it’s designed to raise questions that, if acknowledged, would devastate such one-dimensional caricatures.
Given today’s downward cultural spiral, it’s disturbing but not surprising that the makers of a thoughtful new documentary about Jordan Peterson are having a hard time finding somewhere to show their film. Many mainstream and independent cinemas have refused to screen it because they’re “fearful of controversy” or “morally concerned.” One theater in Toronto cancelled a week-long showing after some of the staff “took issue with it.” A theater in Brooklyn cancelled a second screening, despite the fact that the first sold out and received good reviews, “because some staff were offended . . . and felt uncomfortable.”
Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson! That name, that man, that swirling storm of impassioned controversies—again? After the flood of protests, podcasts, profiles, social media storms, hit pieces, and heartfelt testimonials that saturated the English-speaking world after Peterson posted his “Professor Against Political Correctness” video in Fall 2016, some might assume that squelching a new film about him is no big deal. After all, is there really anything worthwhile left to say about the man and the cultural maelstrom he provoked?
As it turns out, the answer is “yes.” Having watched the recently released 90-minute documentary, The Rise of Jordan Peterson, I can say this with confidence. The documentary follows Peterson’s unexpected skyrocket to fame by cross-cutting previously unseen and pre-existing footage in ways that are original, empathetic, and thought provoking. Clips of lectures, protests, and newscasts familiar to those who followed Peterson’s rise are expertly interwoven with fresh footage of past events, as well as exclusive interviews with him and a wide array of family members, friends, colleagues, and, importantly, critics (categories which, in some cases, overlap). There are also intimate scenes of Peterson in his home—strangely and rather disturbingly decorated with giant agitprop paintings—and his hometown of Toronto, Canada (which looks oddly bucolic, by comparison).
What makes The Rise of Jordan Peterson particularly notable is that it neither shies away from the political controversies surrounding Peterson, nor allows itself to be defined or limited by them. Peterson, of course, became an intensely polarizing figure immediately after posting his video critique of then-pending Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to the categories protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code in 2017. (Peterson’s core objection to the legislation, as I understand it, is that this constitutes a dangerous expansion of the state’s power to control and even compel speech.) Consequent commentary tended to follow predictable lines: Progressives condemned him; conservatives praised him; and his more apolitical fans tried to stay out of the fray.
Rather than conforming to any one of these positions, The Rise of Jordan Peterson weaves the political debates into a richer tapestry of human issues, concerns, and relationships. The psychological and mythological realms, which are central to Peterson’s primary body of work (a fact since overshadowed by ugly disputes over his real and imagined politics), are invoked in ways that communicate their irreducible mystery and complexity. This is not easy to do, particularly when navigating such intensely contested ideological terrain. The result is a refreshingly original take on the Peterson phenomenon, with the vision and skill to transcend the intellectually and emotionally suffocating boxes with which it has typically been framed.
A Kaleidoscopic Narrative
The film (and its trailer) opens with an image of an unusual stained glass window that I found so arresting, I paused the video to look at it more closely. There’s a horseshoe studded with faceted jewels, a circle of roses, two green clovers, blue-green ivy garlands, classical columns. The images feel symbolically resonant, but impossible to place. The window looks like it might be part of an old university, or perhaps a church.
In fact, it’s located just outside Peterson’s front door. The camera follows him as he walks toward the window, opens the door beside it, and turns to go down the hallway and up the stairs. Virtually all of the available wall space in his house is filled with paintings. There’s a gigantic image of a triumphant Lenin pontificating before an attentive crowd, peppered with men brandishing rifles and red Soviet flags. All this flashes by in less than half a minute, accompanied by foreboding music.
A barrage of film clips and voiceovers then roll by in rapid succession—shots of Peterson’s lectures, newscasts, and podcasts; protesters; theater marques announcing his appearances; newspaper headlines denouncing him. A fan testifies: “He is the ultimate father figure.” An anti-Peterson activist sneers: “So, you’re anti-justice. Are you a Batman villain?” We see Peterson lecturing in front of enormous crowds. “Man does not live by bread alone,” he says. “Spiritual bread, that’s the story.”
Open-minded viewers may wonder: Why has there been such tremendous cultural and political churning around Peterson? Why did he so suddenly become such a famous (or, for many, infamous) public figure? What’s the best way to understand the significance not only of the man and his work, but also the tsunami of positive and negative attention he has generated?
The Rise of Jordan Peterson offers no simple answers to questions like these. It isn’t a conventional talking heads-style documentary. It doesn’t seek to hammer an agenda into its audience. Instead, the film honors the complexity of both of Peterson, his supporters, and his critics. It recognizes that the issues involved are enormous, complicated, and in many ways much bigger than the particular individuals, groups, and causes involved. Following Peterson’s sudden rise to fame in real time with an attentive ear, the story it shares is not reducible to a hashtag.
To appreciate the profound complexity of individuals and events is to recognize that both are embedded in larger patterns of social and historical relationships. Some of these patterns are so big that they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. While it’s never explicitly stated, The Rise of Jordan Peterson feels like it’s exploring terrain that includes more than the understandings of reality and fact many of us take for granted. The many symbolic images that flash by—the stained glass, the paintings, a crucifix, and what look like several indigenous masks—evoke the extra-rational power of art, myth, ritual, ideology, and religion. These are powerful themes, central to Peterson’s primary body of work.