I thought of Rush Limbaugh as I watched Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. An unfair comparison, perhaps: Limbaugh is a radio talk-show host, Moore a maker of documentary movies. But both are masters of their particular genre who, regrettably, like to use cheap, personal attacks to nail their political points.
Does Limbaugh change people’s minds? At first, he politicized angry and alienated white males, giving them scapegoats (“feminazis,” the poor -- from his mouth, a code word for “African-Americans -- and, most of all, liberal politicians) for their own personal insecurities. Now, having rallied that constituency, he speaks only to that particular choir.
Michael Moore, for his part, wants to convince Americans to vote against the Bush administration in the November election. Does he achieve his purpose? I hope scholars are studying the film’s effectiveness. How many independents or Republicans are in the audience? Is it changing anyone’s mind? Or, like Limbaugh, is Moore merely preaching to his own equally partisan choir?
Moore takes up his cinematic challenge with a conceptual quandary. He’s both a satirist/humorist and a serious, political documentarian. Fahrenheit 9/11 is really two films: one an uneven satire with a lot of funny set-pieces mixed in with cheap shots at the expense of members of the Bush administration; and then a documentary, brilliant at times, on the 2000 election and the war in Iraq. The cheap shots draw guffaws from the liberals in the audience but, I suspect, alienate potentially sympathetic independents and Republicans. These much too-easy personal attacks, I believe, compromise his credibility on his more important arguments.
The film begins with the 2000 election. There is startling video footage of African-American members of the House of Representatives calling for Congress to investigate the Florida vote count. In order to get their motion on the congressional agenda, they need the support of one -- and only one -- Senator. That support is not forthcoming. In his role of Senate Pro Tempore, Vice President Al Gore wields his gavel to silence the dissident Representatives. This is a shocking scene barely reported in the national media. What it indicates, though Moore doesn’t say it, is that the Democrats made a decision to avoid a partisan battle by contesting the election. This effort at political goodwill may have been understandable at the time. Bush had campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” who would work with the Democrats to heal the partisan wounds of the Clinton era. But the new President immediately moved in a right-wing direction. This was the first and possibly the most egregious lie of the Bush administration.
Then comes the hatchet job. Members of the administration are shown having make-up applied before their television appearances, as if to indicate they’re really phonies. But most politicians wear make-up before the television cameras. Indeed, I suspect that it takes some preparation on Moore’s part to achieve the intended effect of his slovenly appearance.
Moore has also found what he seems to believe are embarrassing filmed out-takes of administration public appearances. But Paul Wolfowitz needs to be criticized for his ideas, not because he mouths a comb before pulling it through his hair. Is Bush’s inability to hold a steady gaze, in the seconds before giving a televised speech, an insight, as Moore seems to believe, into his shifty character? Maybe, maybe not. If Moore’s intent is to persuade an audience rather than provoke laughs from the choir, these outtakes are mean-spirited, irrelevant and probably counter-productive. Moore has a problem here of staying on message: Which is, it’s policy, program, and political ideology, stupid!
Moore devotes a lot of footage documenting Bush family ties to Saudi Arabia and the family of Osama bin Laden. The facts are well documented but the conclusions unwarranted. Bottom-line: A family, especially a large extended family like that of the bin Ladens, cannot be held responsible for the evils of one offspring unless there is specific proof, which Moore doesn’t offer, of a direct link to his terrorist activities. Moore also implies that the Saudis, through their money, directly influence Bush’s foreign policy. The administration’s support for Israel’s right-wing government indicates how wrong Moore is on this interpretation.
But then we get the footage from Iraq, including interviews with soldiers of the kind we never see on American television. We also watch military recruiters mining a shopping mall for low-income teenagers. (They make no effort to recruit the children of the affluent.) Moore’s sincere affection for working people, as is his patriotic hurt at the direction of his country, comes across powerfully. Especially affecting are the scenes with Lila Lipscomb, a self-described “patriotic,” working-class woman who had encouraged her children to join the military. When her son is killed in Iraq she begins to pay attention to the politics of the war and becomes an angry opponent. This is Moore at his documentarian best, allowing the veracity of the material to take precedence over his satirist’s temptation to manipulate images for laughs.
The footage on Iraq transforms Fahrenheit 9/11 into an important documentary. Perhaps, in the end, Michael Moore is victim of a self-created artistic dilemma. People are drawn to his films because of his zaniness. A straight political documentary would not have had mass-market distribution or caused such a stir in the media.
The Bush administration and its media allies are striving to discredit Moore and marginalize his movie. But let’s not forget that while Moore has this one shot at the movie audience, Rush Limbaugh (whose program in broadcast to American troops by Armed Forces Radio at taxpayer’s expense) and his right-wing talk show clones will be at it on radio and Fox News right up to election day. Against the daily onslaught of right-wing propaganda, Moore is a welcome and necessary antidote, an alternative view of the current reality. Despite the cheap shots, his film rings more truthful than anything you’ll hear from right-wing talk show hosts or even supposedly objective TV reporters and commentators. One only hopes that Michael Moore is preaching to more Americans than just the “anyone but Bush” liberal choir.
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: 1945-1960 and Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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