This is the movie that won the movie world’s highest accolade — a sort of international Oscar — the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or. And it is the movie that columnist Christopher Hitchens attacked as “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.”
It is a furious, scathing, obnoxious, engrossing, frustrating, terrifying, heart-rending, and unabashedly partisan challenge to the current administration. But, most important, it is a passionate challenge to all who accept what they are told about anything without questioning.
William Butler Yeats said, “out of our arguments with the world, we make propaganda; out of our arguments with ourselves, we make art.” Writer/director/court jester Michael Moore does not do much arguing with himself. And yet, that is exactly what he challenges us to do. The real contribution of this movie is its recognition that sometimes you have to make people angry to get them to think. And Moore does enjoy making people angry. An advertising tagline for this movie asks coyly, “Controversy…What Controversy?”
Movie provocateur Moore has pioneered a form of advocacy documentary. His films are more like op-eds or partisan leaflets than like news stories. He uses the techniques of film-making that feature film-makers use to tell a story and advertisers do to sell products, but he uses them to take a stand and he likes to stir things up. In his previous films, Moore took on American icons General Motors and the gun industry. This time, he takes on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
His charges include:
- George W. Bush stole the 2000 election with the help of his brother, the Governor of Florida, and his “Daddy’s friends on the Supreme Court.”
- In his first eight months in office, he spent 42% of his time on vacation.
- President Bush is not very smart or effective, especially in his response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
- The Bush family’s ties to the Saudis have influenced the President’s decisions and compromised his ability to act in the best interests of the American people.
- Rich old white Congressmen, Senators, and Bush administration officials are sending poor young minority soldiers to fight and die in Iraq for a war that is killing civilians and is more for the benefit of American corporate interests than national security or Iraqi freedom.
Moore makes these points with an avalanche of facts, wisecracks, cheap shots, some less cheap but still mighty inexpensive shots, and sometimes-outraged and often-snarky commentary. He starts with a fact like the percentage of vacation days. Then he amplifies it with sitcom music and juxtaposed stock or out of context footage that makes the President and the members of his administration appear foolish or ineffective.
Of course, anyone looks foolish being powdered by a make-up artist in preparation of an appearance on television. (For more evidence on this, see a surreal 1992 documentary about the New Hampshire primary called Feed.) Moore includes other clips so unfair that they boomerang and make the movie less persuasive. Is it fair to play the President’s gentle jokes about the net worth of his supporters at a white-tie dinner as though it was a meeting of a secret society plotting to take over the planet like Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil? Do we really learn anything by hearing Britney Spears say that she trusts the President?
It’s enough that a Congressman, clearly enjoying himself, tells Moore that no one on the Hill reads the bills they sign. It detracts rather than adds when Moore then borrows an ice cream truck on Capitol Hill to bellow the Patriot Act’s provisions over the loudspeaker.
Surely Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz has better moments than sticking a comb in his mouth to help make his hair stay in place, but that is the one Moore selects. Attorney General John Ashcroft may not be a good singer but that’s not what we pay him for. Presidents get asked questions about all subjects wherever they are, because the press follows them wherever they go. So when President Bush speaks of the importance of stopping terrorism while he’s on the golf course and then turns back to his golf swing, the implication that he is a modern-day Nero is overblown. Some of this is wickedly enjoyable, but some of it is clutter and some undercuts the power of the points Moore is trying to make.
Moore makes much of the President’s staying on in a classroom visit for seven long minutes after being told that America was under attack, speculating about what he was thinking. It is chilling to see him sitting there, looking blank and indecisive. But does it really matter what kind of linen he slept on the night before?
The peaceful, even idyllic footage of Baghdad the day before the U.S. started bombing is as obviously misleading as efforts to portray all of Iraq as the embodiment of evil. Moore is clear that Saddam Hussein was a despicable tyrant (a point made while showing footage of current U.S. officials greeeting him warmly). But there are many tyrants around the world who are not the target of the U.S. and that is not the reason that the administration used to justify the war. The justification was alleged Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. The administration’s basis for believing or alleging both is now in question.
Moore believes that the real reason was something else, perhaps the interests of the President’s corporate cronies. Moore shows us some ghoulish scenes of thinly disguised capitalist glee at the prospect of all those new customers in Iraq who will be doing a lot of rebuilding and a return to the free-flowing era of the cost-plus contract. One says, “The good news is, whatever it costs, the government will pay you!” Or maybe it was the President’s fury at Saddam Hussein’s plan to kill his father, the first President Bush. Or, maybe it was, as former White House anti-terrorist specialist Richard Clarke suggests, “because there were no good targets in Afganistan.”
The movie has moments that may be manipulative, but are nevertheless unassailably genuine. A visit with the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq is moving not just for her loss but for her ideals and her devotion to her family and her country. Glimpses of terribly wounded soldiers on both sides and Iraqi civilians are shocking, as they should be. Juxtaposing that with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explaining the “humanity” of our surgical strikes is chilling, as it should be. A shot of flag-draped coffins is all the more powerful because it is an image suppressed by the Bush administration.
Then there are Moore’s trademarks. One is capturing real-life moments that are surreal, poignant, and hilarious all at once. A promoter proudly shows off a new product, a “safe” hiding place in case of attack that is like a cross between a 1950’s bomb shelter and a cast-iron port-a-potty. A Marine recruiter approaching young shoppers in the mall on the poor side of town brightly tells one prospect who seems interested in music, ” Shaggy was a Marine!” He goes on to explain that the discipline of the Marines will help him make it in music and manage all that money he’ll make. We meet a sweet little group of Fresno peaceniks who were infiltrated by a federal agent and a nursing mother whose breast milk was considered contraband by a zealous airport security guard. And Moore shows us how, now as throughout history, wars are declared by the powerful and fought by the poor. “Those who have the least are the first to step up to support that system.”
Another Moore trademark is making fun of dumb bureaucrats and hypocrites. Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says in an on-camera interview that anyone with con
cerns about intelligence collection could call a toll-free number. Words flash across the bottom of the screen explaining that actually, that is not true; but Moore is happy to give us Porter’s office number instead. Moore’s other trademark is a sort of political Punk’d — stunts and pranks. We meet other Congressmen who duck when Moore asks them if their children will enlist to fight in the war they voted for.
What is new for Moore is this movie’s moments of subtlety. The scenes of the 9/11 terrorist attack are on a black screen, sounds only, until after the second plane hits the World Trade Center and we see the faces of those who are watching. Moore is less intrusive in this film than in his others, and when he lets the people tell the story themselves the movie is at its most powerful, far more so than when he makes overbroad claims: “When a President commits the immoral act of sending kids to war based on a lie, this is what we get — torture .”
Much of the material Moore covers is already well-known to people who follow the news carefully. But assembled as a dossier or a mosaic of complex inter-relationships, conflicts of interest, ignorance, and thuggishness, it is a devastating attack.
Some viewers will be offended. But they should take it as an opportunity to consider the way that all media sources select and comment on the facts they report. It is a powerful film that should be seen and responded to. Even Moore would rather have people argue with him about the implications of what he presents than to have anyone unthinkingly accepting his conclusions.
We will not know for a generation or more whether it was right for the US to invade Iraq. That is the way of history. But arguments like those posed in this movie will help us to think carefully not just about the topics it covers but also about the larger question of how we gather and respond to the information we need to make important decisions. This movie and the howls and rebuttals it provokes are exactly what is meant by the famous assertion by anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In that context, the Britney Spears clip turns out to make sense after all. It resonates for all of those who will not think about what is going on. So in the words of American Revolution hero Patrick Henry, “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
Parents should know that this movie includes war violence with very explicit footage of wounded soldiers and civilians. We see a beheading (from a distance). There is brief very strong language. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of a very loving and devoted inter-racial family.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Moore uses cinematic techniques like music and the juxtaposition of film footage to underscore his points. Everyone who sees this movie should read some of the responses to its facts and conclusions, especially two pieces in Slate, this article by Christopher Hitchens quoted above and this column by Jack Shafer about Moore’s threats to bring libel suits against those who criticize the film. Moore’s rebuttals to critiques of the film will be posted on his website. This is one example.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Moore’s other documentaries, Roger & Me and the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine. They should also appreciate Control Room, about the way that the Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, covers the war in Iraq and about the larger issue of bias in reporting. They should also read or see the movie version of the dystopian Ray Bradbury story that inspired the title of this movie, Fahrenheit 451, about a book-banning future society where the “firemen” are those in charge of burning the books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which they burn. What burns at Fahrenheit 9/11 may be another story.