Michael & Me

Michael Moore and the death of subtlety

Jun 30, 2004 at 12:00 am

I wanted to love this film. It’s the liberal’s rallying cry, a scathing indictment of a man and his war, of President George W. Bush and his family and their links to Saudi oil and defense money. The documentary pulls together all the pieces of the puzzle to illustrate a duplicitous White House; nobody with a working brain could leave Fahrenheit 9/11 without serious concerns about the ethics and motives behind the Iraq war. It’s the perfect antidote for the pro-Bush faction — but will any of those people actually go see it? What good can Moore do when he only preaches to the choir?

The documentation in Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t blow me away. Moore spends a good deal of time stating realities that any good citizen knows from reading newspapers and magazines, and he does it with palpable self-righteousness (and a tendency toward leading questions). For the rest, innuendo and impression are the name of the game.

Yet the documentary points out many lesser-known facts-according-to-Moore worth noting, such as: 1) The man who first called the election for Bush, a director at Fox News, is Bush’s first cousin. 2) Bush is the first president who didn’t walk to the White House on Inauguration Day because there were so many protesters. 3) The government flew 24 members of the bin Laden family and 120 other Saudis out of the country after 9/11. Moore says they were spirited away without interrogation. 4) Companies connected to Bush’s family have been planning to build a natural gas pipeline in the Middle East that means big, big bucks for all involved; the line will run through Afghanistan. 5) Texas workers are currently in Iraq overseeing oil production, and say they feel very safe due to heavy American military protection. 6) Bush’s military record indicates that the president flew with a man named James Bath whom Moore calls the “Texas money man for the bin Ladens.” The bin Laden connection is the reason, Moore says, the White House blacked Bath’s name out of Bush’s military record. (Moore takes sole credit for the release of Bush’s service record by the White House.) 7) As Texas governor in 1997, Bush sponsored a Taliban representative who went around the country trying to improve the reputation of the group. A high-point of humor in the film is when a woman scolds the man, asking how his people can treat women the way they do, making them cover up and all. And the man responds with something like, “I pity your husband that he must deal with you.”

A memorable scene is of Bush after he learns that the nation is under attack on Sept. 11. He sits in a Florida classroom in front of a bunch of African-American kids, staring off into the distance, looking terrified, nervous, paranoid. It’s an utterly bizarre moment. Moore says seven minutes pass with Bush sitting dazed. I suppose Bush should have stood up immediately and excused himself to start working to help protect the nation. Clearly, the man was in shock. Or maybe he was scared. Or maybe he didn’t know what the hell to do. Everybody reacted in shock when the towers were hit. Bush lost seven minutes. We all know he’s not the sharpest tack in the box. We also know he’s human.

Moore’s strength is his ability to collect quotes from real people that tell a compelling story, such as when a young soldier in Iraq says, “This is a lot more real than a video game. … A lot different … the smells. … You see people bloated and lying there dead … kids, little kids.” Another tells of seeing a man carrying his dead wife. Still another says he’ll refuse to go back to the war to kill poor people. An Iraqi woman screams at the soldiers; Moore runs the translation of her words, which go something like: “I’ve had five funerals. … Where is God? ... I pray that God will avenge us.” Bush is shown saying, “I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft is caught on tape singing his insanely bad song, “Let the Eagle Soar,” at a press conference. Another vignette shows a man from Flint standing on a block of blighted homes and saying that if Bush wants to solve some problems, “He should come here. Come right here. He knows about this corner. I e-mailed him.”

In Moore’s fashion, the documentary juxtaposes these real-life snippets with the bigger picture. The film spends much time on the links and business associations between the Bushes and the Saudi oil barons, stating that the Saudis have diverted $1.4 billion to the Bushes and their companies over the past 30 years; $860 billion in Saudi cash is invested in the United States. The implication is that because of a reliance on Saudi cash, the Bushes have reason to protect them. And according to the documentary, the White House is doing just that — censoring reports that might show a connection between the Saudi establishment and the 9/11 attacks.

Some of Moore’s arguments are lame. The film spends too much time lampooning Bush for his days off at his ranch and on the golf course. Every president vacations and Bush isn’t the first to be criticized for it. Moore is indignant that the president “casually dined” with the Saudi ambassador two nights after 9/11. But is this really anything sinister? Perhaps the president and his crew were grilling the ambassador about the attack, or threatening sanctions if the guy didn’t help get needed information. Who knows? One split-second clip shows Bush’s dog running away from him, but unlike the impression given by the trailer, in the film the scene appears to be a fleeting dog thing. The pooch might have jumped into Bush’s arms a moment after the clip.

Moore tugs at the heart — walking his audience back through 9/11, showing clips of how happy things were in Baghdad before the invasion, with kids flying kites, busy cafés, women smiling and laughing and kids at a playground. There’s a close-up of a girl easing down a slide before the film shifts to explicit horrors of the American war, showing dead and bloody and broken Iraqi children and citizens. Scenes of devastation and death made me weep. But sadness turned to irritation when Moore took it too far, using a Flint woman who lost her son, playing her pain to the hilt as if a voyeuristic tour of her personal tragedy would sway pro-war voters against it.

The beauty of the Moore phenomenon is the reaction of the Republicans who are trying to undermine Fahrenheit 9/11, only bringing more attention to it. First, Disney refused to allow Miramax studios, a division of Disney, to release the film. Then the Weinstein film barons, who run Miramax, bought the film from Disney and put it out themselves. Now that it’s released in America, the White House and conservatives far and wide are accusing the film of all kinds of libel and lies. Moore should revel in the backlash.

But Moore has established himself as the angry anti-war partisan who loves to embarrass people, rubbing their hypocrisies in their faces. As such, Moore plays an important role in our society. America needs fearless entertainers who can make people sit up and listen to an alternative view, somebody who can inspire people to think new thoughts and question the status quo.

In Roger & Me, Moore showed what kind of hell can occur when a corporation — in that case, General Motors — decides to abandon a town — in that case, Moore’s hometown of Flint, and the people in it, leaving upward of 17 percent unemployed. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore made many a compelling argument about how screwed up America is, and illustrated the bone-chilling effects of media fear-mongering and lax gun control in creating a society whose members murder one another at rates beyond comparison. Moore is good at pointing a finger and asking, “Why?”

My problem with Bowling for Columbine is that Moore offered no answers. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s solution is clear: Vote Bush out of office and stop the war. The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it needs to be seen by Republicans, by the people who trust our nation’s reasons for going to war in the first place. But those people won’t go. They won’t go because they don’t like Michael Moore and they don’t trust him. They know he’s going to find all the things that will make Bush look like a buffoon and a liar.

Exacerbating this problem is Moore’s penchant for pettiness. He infuses his films with his own shameless urge to let everyone know how much more he knows than everyone else, and he clearly baits some subjects to get them to say what he wishes them to. At the end of the day, Moore’s effort to reveal the sins of American society and corporate greed are just as much about aggrandizing his ego as they are about the matters at hand.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope thousands of conservatives turn out to watch Moore present his case against Bush and the war. It could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with Election Day fast approaching. Or it could be forgotten for its failings or worse, ignored.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].