(Hmm. I did not expect three people to write up a film they have not seen. I am lucky in that two theaters near me in New York City started showing this film early. I composed this yesterday, while the database was offline. I apologize if there is some overlap with details related above.)
Of course, you were already going to see it. You don’t need my advice. I’m fairly certain this film is going to be a massive hit. If there’s any danger of backlash, it’s not from people who love George W. Bush. It’s from people who hate Michael Moore.
They’re tired of his nasal Midwestern accent in voice-over. They’re tired of his overly wide body lumbering into frame – “That doesn’t look like a champion of minimum-wagers to me!”, they say. (Never mind the ubiquitous sources of obesity.) They’re tired of his wealth (though he was dirt poor until he started making art – isn’t that the American dream?), tired of a half-remembered altercation with an unhappy former assistant. They’re probably tired of him splicing in music that tells you when to feel sad and when to feel ironically jaunty, and they’re definitely, apparently, very tired of him cutting together footage of Charlton Heston to make him seem to say things that Heston did not say in that exact order. On that exact day.
“This makes him just as bad as the people he’s attacking!” they say.
Does it? Does it endow him with a 24-hour media empire, with corresponding arms in print such as The Sun and the New York Post? Does it prevent Disney from blocking release of his film because, in the express words of Michael Eisner, the company does not wish to endanger the status of its vast amusement park real estate holdings in Florida, a state whose governor happens to be the president’s brother? Does it stop a false grassroots organization from actively petitioning theaters to ban his film? Is Mr. Moore attempting censorship of anyone, in the fashion of his detractors?
I would argue that what these people are really tired of is him storming into the multiplex, and stomping onstage at the Oscars, and challenging them to think. To have an opinion, and defend it.
Yes, I am a huge Michael Moore fan and have been for almost ten years. I am “biased”. Just so you know.
Ah yes. The film.
For me personally, very little, if any of the “revelatory” information in the film was new. This is because I read Dude, Where’s My Country and because I frequently check both independent and foreign media reports. This does not mean that this information is common knowledge. Far from it. I speak mainly of three narrow subjects:
1. Bush flying the bin Laden family out of America on 9/13/01.
2. The uncontested contracts handed to Halliburton, of which Dick Cheney was CEO.
3. The UNOCAL natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan.
The film’s details on these matters may influence the ideas of people, such as my own father, who do not believe that the administration’s past tenures as fossil fuel magnates have any effect on their current foreign policy decisions.
But these details are not what the film is about. Information, facts and figures, is the domain of the exposé, the essay. This is a movie. Which means it is built out of emotions. Facial expressions.
For instance, you and I can argue gun control until we expire. In his last film, Michael Moore was not very interested in making an argument. Instead, he chose to show footage of a father whose son was murdered at Columbine. It is not really this man’s argument that we listen to. It is the earnest quaver of grief in his voice that any actor would gladly train for years to be able to duplicate. It is completely real. And the emotion we feel in response is as real.
Likewise, in this film we spend a good deal of time with a mother whose son was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, a mother who encouraged her son to join the army. Her angry tears say more than a thousand protest signs.
On the other hand, and other side of the planet, we see incensed Iraqis whose homes have been destroyed, and mutilated children. Images like this, despite how plentiful they are, have, for some reason, never been shown on American television, and so they may shock many Americans. (There is similar footage in the excellent documentary about Al Jazeera, Control Room, which, sadly, is probably not coming to a theater near you anytime soon.)
I surprised myself by agreeing with the MPAA’s R rating. It is not censorship. This violence, however brief, is horribly graphic. Also, it has long been established that for a film to achieve a PG-13 rating, it can only include one utterance of the word “fuck”, which must not refer to the literal act of intercourse. This film has five or six “motherfucker”s plus a soldier touching an Iraqi prisoner’s erection. Our children must of course be protected from homoeroticism.
There are a few Awful-Truth-style guilt pranks in this film, like we expect from Moore. There are also a few episodes of absurd FBI “anti-terrorism” prosecutions. I’m deliberately avoiding spoiling the jokes for you, and yes, these brief segments form the comic relief in this unnerving, disturbing spectacle. Moore stays mostly offscreen.
The film’s final damning effect is cumulative. It simply places events in the proper chronological order and mercilessly lets W.’s every empty promise, meaningless swaggerism and idiotic mangling of English wither in the harsh light of a roomful of laughter. You have to laugh, so that you do not cry. You might do both at once. Repeat after me:
Bush Sr.’s Supreme Court Justices overturn recount. Not one Senator challenges. 42% vacation. 12 minutes of “My Pet Goat” while people leap out 100-story windows. Taliban escapes. Still no bin Laden. Patriot Act printed the in middle of the night and approved by a Congress which never read it. Civil liberties eradicated. Actual borders left unprotected. Flights still unsafe from weaponry. 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians. 700 dead American soldiers. 5,000 more wounded. And still no weapons of mass destruction. But plenty of oil.
Boy, when you put it like that, it really does sound like a bunch of CEOs hijacked the Constitution and are using taxpayer dollars to exterminate anyone necessary in the name of profit! But that’s too terrible to be true, right? Those are broad generalizations!
In the age of The Grey Album, this is a mash-up masterpiece of found footage. No matter how you feel about the President, this is artfully edited. It’d be beautiful if it wasn’t sickening.
I’ll close by explicating the title, since Mr. Moore doesn’t, in case maybe there are some young people out there who are not well read. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction classic. The number is the temperature at which paper burns. Mr. Bradbury, as you may have heard, is not at all happy about Mr. Moore’s homage. The book depicts a future where firemen are employed by the state to burn books, where an out of control motor industry has transformed crossing the road into a potentially fatal activity, and where a population is kept contentedly stupid by four walls of soap operas. Moore’s message, therefore, is that the Bush administration is exploiting a devastating attack on us to bring us this future as fast as they can.
And lastly, thank you, Mr. Moore, for not including anywhere in this film a single frame of the smoking World Trade Center. Unlike BBC News, you are sensitive to the pain of New Yorkers, and you know that I never want to see that again.
UPDATE June 28, 2004
In its opening weekend, this film smashed the box-office record for a documentary with a take of over $24 million. That record was set by Bowling for Columbine over a period of several months. Analysts had predicted that the Wayans brothers comedy White Chicks, also in its debut, would triumph; however, despite playing on three times as many screens, it did not. Audience members in such Republican strongholds as Mobile, Alabama and Houston, Texas reported standing ovations.
UPDATE August 25, 2004
: (Public response to below writeup)
"To denigrate this as propaganda is either naive or perverse, forgetting (deliberately?) what the last century taught us. Propaganda requires a permanent network of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast. Propaganda invariably serves the long-term interests of some elite.
This single maverick movie is often reflectively slow and is not afraid of silence. It appeals to people to think for themselves and make connections. And it identifies with, and pleads for, those who are normally unlistened to. Making a strong case is not the same thing as saturating with propaganda. Fox TV does the latter; Michael Moore the former."
John Berger, The Guardian