CANAL ZONE is about the people who live and work in the Panama Canal Zone and shows both the operation of the Canal and the various governmental agencies business, military, and civilian related to the functioning of the Canal and the lives of the Americans in the zone. The film includes sequences of ships in transit, the work of special canal pilots, aspects of the civil government, work of the military, and the social, religious and recreational life of the Zonians.
[Fred Wiseman’s] epochal television documentary on the Americans in the zone was the best- in-depth report in the entire debate.
–Walter Lafeber, More
(H)e has focused on the community life of the Americans holding the fort in the Zone, and his film is both a despairing critique of lower-middle-class American values and a comic pathetic elegy for American imperialism. CANAL ZONE connects with his earlier works in disturbing ways: of all his films it is the saddest and, when you think about it, the most shocking.
–David Denby, The Boston Phoenix
In the sunny landscape of a distant Army enclave in Panama, Wiseman finds a nightmare vision of America itself… By the time CANAL ZONE reaches its Memorial Day climax… it becomes as bitter as Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street… an ingenious cautionary tale.
–Frank Rich, Time