Sunday, July 11, 2004

Michael Moore, and His Film, Reviewed (Finally)

It's been nearly 3 weeks since I saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and to be honest, I'm no closer to being able to spell it correctly the first time around today than I was back then (when you blog a lot, the first thing that goes, after all measurable free time, is confidence in one's spelling prowess. I can't explain it, it just happens.)

Part of my weekly exercises to stay on my game for my dear readers is to make sure I'm as pop-culturally savvy as I am news-wonkish. To that end, I'm an avid Entertainment Weekly reader. Recently, the magazine's cover story was an interview with Michael Moore. Here's the link to the interview, however, it may be for subscribers only. Accordingly, I'll build my Michael Moore commentary around quoted text. The interview captures a lot of Moore's inner conflict - his inconsistencies and his struggle to unite his film's message, his own beliefs and bents, with what he thinks needs to be done in November. In short - he hates George Bush - but you know it KILLS him to have to support Democrats.

EW It seems to me that what you were trying to do was build the left's most sensational, potent case against this administration.
MOORE My own motivation [was the thought that] we can't leave this up to the Democrats. It's too serious now. I mean, this is a party that can't even win when they win. They lose when they win, you can't get more pathetic than that. We have to save them from themselves.
EW Is this why you pushed for it to be released on June 25? And the October DVD date? To directly assist the Democrats in the election?

So, clearly, he's not really in my party either. Then again, regular Phoblog readers wouldn't be surprised to see me nodding in agreement. We can't seem to get things straight in my party. We mess up the easy wins yearly, don't we? The difference between me and a Nader/3d party voter, however, is that I still believe it's possible to cleanse from within - and that doing so is faster than starting over again a scant few months from E-Day.

Where Moore begins to lose my support, however, is in his carefully orchestrated handling of truth. He's simultaneously needing to aver the veracity of his claims and couch them in the (legal? intellectual?) protections of his "impressions:"

EW But [the Administration] took responsibility for the decision that was made.
MOORE But he went on the word of the FBI. . . . It's my interpretation and opinion that that was not a thorough investigation. I mean, is anybody accusing me of saying something that isn't true? Or is it my interpretation of the events?

That exchange involves the bit of controversy over those flights leaving the US immediately after 9/11 - the ones carrying the, as Moore tells it, uninterrogated Saudis. Well, some of them were interrogated, it seems, but not enough for his tastes. Moore covers himself under the protective sheen of "interpretation." Does it help his cause? Probably not. I think it makes him seem a little indignant and defensive. And of the personal criticism, well, Moore handles all of that swimmingly as well - in a fit of consider-the-source-ness, which is probably true, the critics (the article clearly implies Fox News) he calls "wacky people, lunatics . . . who would listen to any of that?" He may, however, over estimate the strengh of his supporters. By that I mean that many agree with his film's message, and even its tactics, but it doesn't me they (we) don't see his shortcomings as well. I can forgive him as far as it goes - but let's not forget with whom he campaigned last time out. Hint: no Gore. The interviews counters Moore's question of who's listening by telling him half the country is. Moore disagrees, says he doesn't believe that. That's great - yet it seems they do, at least if you boil things down to electoral vote counts (the poll numbers are changing - but not quickly or decisively enough yet). And that's just another aspect of Moore's World at odds with Our World.

Sometimes, he just goes to far - take this exchange, and the Editor's note - for an example of the record coming back and biting Moore in the butt:

EW Bill O'Reilly recently compared you to Joseph Goebbels.
MOORE [Sigh] This is really interesting, the night [of] the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson, big FCC thing, the breast and everything, Bill O'Reilly is on Geraldo's show talking about Al Franken. And he says back in the time of Andrew Jackson, if this were the old days, they'd just put a bullet in his head. [Pause] And that went out over the airwaves, no FCC, nothing. I mean, he's basically inciting some crazy person to shoot Al Franken. The night after the Super Bowl, Bill O'Reilly says, ''You know I don't support the death penalty but I gotta be honest, I want to kill Michael Moore, I'd make the exception. I'd like to kill Michael Moore.'' You're crossing a line there. [Editor's note: O'Reilly actually said, ''Well, I want to kill Michael Moore, is that right? All right? And I don't believe in capital punishment. That's a joke on Moore.'']

Is it a huge gaffe? No, probably not, yet any time he gets a little to wild-eyed on these smaller issues (and anytime the focus becomes, "poor persecuted Michael" and not "poor lied to, run-over America," it's a smaller issue), he runs the risk of losing valuable handfuls of reasonable, moderate voters. His whole crusade is to undermine the Administration's credibility - which means that, like it or not, his must be as close to spotless as he can keep it. Sorry Mikey, thems the breaks. I have a feeling O'Relly would run you down in a heartbeat if he could get away with it (of course, maybe not, since without a foil, O'Reilly's not much good), but until he tries, or you quote him correctly and in context, can it.

At one point, Moore addresses the "hey, how stupid is Disney?" question:

EW Is it especially satisfying that the movie is a hit, given that Disney's Michael Eisner dumped it?
MOORE No. Because none of this was ever personal to me. What I would say to Disney stockholders is ''What is the fiduciary responsibility of a CEO who strikes a match to tens of millions -- if not hundreds of millions -- of dollars?'' It was the freest money he ever had! He could have had a film that cost $6 million and is now on a track to make $50 to $100 million domestically!

Which ties into:

EW The hard right likes to call you a ''traitor'' or ''anti-American.'' I think a lot of it comes from the fact that you say these things overseas that can be pretty harsh about your countrymen. Like when you spoke to a British audience and referred to ''this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe.''
MOORE I say the same thing here. Most of us know that for a country that has such incredible ideals, we have not lived up to them in many ways. The patriotic thing to do is to aspire to [make] this country the one that our founding fathers thought it should be. Anybody who works hard to do that, whether they're conservative or liberal, is doing the work of a true American. I would never call anyone on their side unpatriotic or traitorous.

It's the word "domestically" that lept out at me in that first exchange. Of course there will be a foreign market - and how big will that be? What will audience reactions look like in Europe? Asia? Or is it just another example of American jingoism and hubris that we assume foreign markets are clamouring for more evidence about how poorly we play with others? And it's in this part of the interview that my protective instinct kicks in. Its sources are several. First, I'm still an American - and like sibbling stiffe, it's fine, even necessary, for me to bash my fellow Americans, my leadership, etc with great vigor and purpose. But that doesn't mean you, [insert country of choice] can do it! Second, we've done enough damage to ourselves - must we continue to point out to the world how much we're sucking lately? Third, Moore's message is, for the most part, one with which I agree. But where we diverge, or where I have concerns with him - well, on those points, I'm not so sure I want him speaking for me. So the international reputation is a source of concern for me, even as I want to apologize and make right the harm we've caused in the post 9/11 world.

The interview argues that Moore called Bush a deserter as an example of where Moore has, in fact, called someone unpatriotic of traitorous. Moore counters that Bush did desert - and cites the legal difference between mere AWOL and deserter status, adding: "He didn't show up -- depending on what story you read -- anywhere from eight months to a year and a half. I would never say that he hates America or that he's a traitor. And this is a man who, you understand, lied to a country in order to take them to war. That may be criminal! So they better come up with something better than that I somehow slander Americans. Seriously." (of course, now, we'll never know for sure about the missing service time. Oops!)

Moore also defends his decision to keep quiet some of the evidence of prison abuse, claiming all networks are cheerleaders for Bush and that they wouldn't have handled the footage properly. He then places himself squarely on the cross because he would've been damned if he did disclose (as a publicity stunt for the film) and damned if he didn't (as he has been, to some extent.) Of course, if this movie is really "not about [him]" as he swears, then he should've dumped the info as soon as he got it. It's not much more than a footnote to the film anyway. And it would've been a better indictment of Fox News to have given them the footage, let them ignore it, and then hammer them with the omission later.

Moore's take on how he feels about going after the Prez:

EW Ever worry about your tone? I mean, this guy is the President.
MOORE I understand what you're saying. He is the President of the United States. Look, here's a good example of how I feel about this. A couple of weeks ago, out here on Broadway, a guy comes up to me and says, ''I'm a Navy surgeon. And I was on a ship off Iraq the night you made your speech at the Oscars and I was very angry at you. I remember yelling with the others at the screen. Now I just want to apologize. You were right. You were telling the truth.'' And I said, Listen, you don't owe me any apology. Apologize for what? That you believed your Commander-in-Chief? That you believed the President of the United States? Why should you feel bad? You should believe the President, because if we can't believe our President we're in deep trouble. You don't have to apologize for anything. In fact, I want to thank you for offering to risk your life to defend us. I think it would make the founding fathers proud to see the country still survives in their first belief, that's why it's their First Amendment, that somebody has the ability to express themselves and criticize the top guy. That's the country they created. That's the country that gave us Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Groucho Marx. And that can't be anything but a good thing for America.

Moore's at his best when he stands up for dissent without playing the role of the persecuted film maker, regardless of whether he is. He's totally right - dissent is where it's at. The First Amendment is where it's at. But Moore himself is far from the perfect expression of American patriotism - those he's closer to it than Bush at this point.

The film itself (which I, and LJ, could've sworn I posted on after I saw it, but can't find the post to save my soul) is a noble undertaking. It's flawed, heavily flawed at times, and the voice, despised by so many, dooms it to a lower level of legitimacy than if, say, it were a Spielberg film.

I saw the film at a theater in Mountain View, CA, on a Saturday afternoon. My show, and all after it, were sold out by 1pm, and the line for my 1:50pm showing was already out the door when I arrived. People registered voters, sang songs, and passed out literature. Nervous managers paced the foyer, anxiously waiting for an outbreak of civil disobedience or uncivil fights. Nothing untoward happened while I was there, however. My showing was populated by a cross section of the area - all ages, all races, especially Asian and Indian Americans. Seated behind me were a few Brits debating the American system of registering and voting in primaries by party. I noted no conservatives or Republicans - but didn't look very hard either.

On the movie: At times, Moore mosey's dangerously close to his own version of anti-Arab-ism, a subtle mesage I felt in the montage of Americans shaking hands with Arabs. (Note this take on the film by Justin Raimondo, also drawing to attention the uncomfortable subtext. One bad Abdul spoils the bunch apparently).

Moore's use of a grieving mother's turn from patriotism to anger to demanding answers seems powerful, but is undercut when Moore includes footage of another woman arguing at the anti-war protesters in front of the White House - including our heroine mother - "this is all staged." The argument he tries to present is one of foolish and ignorant war supporters, but I couldn't help but wonder the same at the conveniently captured aggitator.

For me, the most powerful aspects of the film were in the first two-thirds. He had me at hello with his recap of the 2000 election. I'd almost forgotten the anger I felt in those complicated months between election and inauguration days. But in the few framing moments at the film's start, I was right back in my college apartment, slack-jawed, sleep-deprived and in a state of shock over not knowing who would be president at 3am (if only I'd known how long it would take . . . .). He also chronicled the 9/11 attacks tastefully, powerfully, even, conveying auditorily what we all remember visually. We hear the planes hit, feel the powerful crashes, the screaming. He reintroduces visual cues in shots of people crying on the streets, praying, running, staring.

Most powerful, next to the sound, were the images of papers floating in the smoky New York air. It's an image I remember well from that day - as newscasters commented on the massive amount of paperwork snowing down on the chaotic streets. Something you never think about - all those documents freed from their files. It's an American Beauty moment, poignant, painful, stunning.

Moore accurately jabs at Democrats, as well, for their complicity in the days following the election and 9/11. He refrains from broader attacks, surely because he wants to tempter the 3d party boost that might come from such bipartisan slamming. The Dems aren't public enemy number one, or even number two, in the film. But they bear no small amount of responsibility, for their nodding yes-men-ing in a time crying out for courageous leadership.

There's plenty of damning material here, and Moore would've been better served focusing on that - drawing more definite connections, placing more accurate blame, than he was in choosing to pump up the pathos in Flint. Military recruiting and the military as sole-way-out, however, would've been even more powerful than the death of the mother's son. She's selectively used by Moore, and the effect is fuzzy, and, at least to me, less persuasive than other aspects of the film's overall indictment of Bush et al.

Fahrenheit 9/11's strengh is in its music, its message, and its methods. Where it falters is only partly Moore's fault - his narrative slips into undisciplined territory just long enough to give Bush supporters a toe hold while ripping into its overall veracity. Where is wins in spades, however, is in its size. This film will not be ignored. What remains to be seen, however, is in which side more effectively uses it to get its people voting.

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