A few years ago, my roommate’s cousin came to town. He was twenty years old, a precocious college sophomore eager to explore graduate school programs in the Boston area. He had another plan as well, which he related to us with an air of giddiness and triumph that he could not contain.
“I’m going to meet with Noam Chomsky,” he said as he unpacked books he hoped to discuss with the elder professor. He could hardly believe his own words.
What the young man had discovered, even if he had not realized it, is that Chomsky will give his time to anyone. In his eccentric new documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry, the French filmmaker noted for The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, reminds us of this generosity in the opening moments, betraying a little of his own surprise at scoring the two interviews that are the basis of the film.
It is important to keep this aspect of Chomsky’s character in mind because, for many, he is his output, his words, ideas, and claims. He is a celebrated scientist, linguist, philosopher, journalist, and activist. He is a devil and a sage. More than anyone, the self-effacing Chomsky would not know what to say to all that.
Gondry wants to convey a bit of the man alongside the ideas and the words. He begins with his subject’s...