May the truth set us free

Jul 7, 2004 at 12:00 am

There is a crystal moment in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 that would, by itself, make the film worth triple the price of admission. Everyone has seen the famous scene where George W. Bush is sitting in a second-grade classroom somewhere in Florida when his chief of staff comes up and whispers in his ear.

What he told him was that the second tower of the World Trade Center had just been hit. Before this movie almost nobody, however, saw what happened next. Bush sits there, immobilized, with his stupidly vacant, deer-in-the-headlights look. Then he goes back to reading My Pet Goat, with the class.

For seven long minutes, with the nation under attack.

“The message is clear,” says British General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of the United Nations protection force in Bosnia, in comments posted on Moore’s Web site. “Here is no Roosevelt, Churchill or Thatcher, but a deeply inadequate man whose mind is frozen with indecision and fear.

“It is a look I know well,” he says. Had George W. been one of his officers in battle, “I would have immediately relieved him of his command,” says the general, adding “everyone should see this film.”

I couldn’t agree more. There has been no more important documentary, in my judgment, since Edward R. Murrow took out the demagogue Joe McCarthy half a century ago.

Interestingly, General Rose isn’t much of a Michael Moore fan; he dislikes his sensationalism and thinks much of his rant gets in the way of the core message. Frankly, I’m in the same camp. I have to confess I didn’t expect much of this movie, mostly because I sort of loathed Moore.

I remember getting frequent e-mails from the blimpster during the last campaign, shrilly saying there was no difference between Bush and Gore. Yeah, right. Anyone paying attention knew better, even then.

Being old enough to remember when college students shaved, cut their hair and dressed neatly in order to persuade people to vote for anti-war candidates (Clean for Gene!), I take a dim view of the idea that those seeking to be culture heroes on the left can afford to be defiantly unkempt slobs.

I found Moore’s last movie, Bowling for Columbine, largely self-indulgent and annoying, as much as I agreed with his message. I thought the scene when he was berating a semi-senile Charlton Heston genuinely embarrassing.

But there is not a false note in Fahrenheit 9/11. Geoffrey Fieger, who these days has found a new semi-career as chairman of the Michigan Film Advisory Committee, told me he thought Moore had made his first major-league movie — and he was absolutely right.

What this movie does, stripped to its essence, is tell the truth — a job journalists are supposed to do, but which mostly isn’t happening these days. The other morning, I sucked down my first quart of Starbucks while staring at whatever cute little twentysomething was giving me the CNN headline news.

“Saddam Hussein has been turned over to the new sovereign Iraqi government,” chirped either Rudi or Robin, I forget which. “However, he will remain under lock and key in an American jail.”

Pretty sovereign government, that. Yet that howling contradiction didn’t produce even the remotest flicker of a grin from the CNN girls, nor from Brokaw or Jennings. One longs for old Linda Ellerbee, who would actually sometimes wink at the camera after reading some piece of official nonsense. Naturally, she never handled bullshit anywhere as bad as what comes from this White House.

Today’s gatekeepers seldom bat an eye. War is peace, ignorance is strength, and we don’t want to present the “appearance of unfairness” or appear to be unpatriotic. So we report the lies and distortions of this government more or less uncritically. What disagreement we do air, to prove we still have free speech, is muted, restrained, on the gray op-ed pages of the New York Times, or relegated to magazines the average Joe never sees.

Michael Moore doesn’t play by their rules, however, and has wrestled the whole stinking rotten corpse of our war machine into the sunlight and flops it down on our front lawns. We see what our marvelous weapons really do to civilians, and what they do to us.

We see U.S. Marine recruiters, acting like cheap whores on Woodward Avenue, trying to wheedle poor kids in bad neighborhoods into joining up, and how the system makes it inevitable that they often have little alternative.

We meet one working-class family, barely making it in Michigan, who think they are taking part in the great patriotic crusade, until their boy is wasted, for what they dully begin to realize is for nothing.

Most troubling are the cleanly documented and disturbing ties between the Bushes and the Saudi royal (oil) family. And, yes, our government really did fly members of Osama bin Laden’s family out of the country after Sept. 11.

This movie is, finally, the shrill scream we all need to hear. It is not a time for sweet reasonableness and low voices. This country is on fire. We are in a war we cannot win, making thousands of enemies worldwide.

We need to see what is really happening. Because in November, we’ll have what may be our only chance to stop it.

Essay Contest: Hey kids? Want to see a cool movie and win some money for school? Geoffrey Fieger, general secretary of the Michigan Film Advisory Board, is sponsoring a Fahrenheit 9/11 essay contest for high school seniors. All you have to do is see the movie, write up to 1,250 typed, double-spaced words about it, and send your piece to Fahrenheit 9/11 Essay Contest, 19390 W. Ten Mile Road, Southfield, MI 48075 no later than Aug. 31.

The winner will get a $2,500 scholarship. This columnist has agreed to do the judging, by the way, so be on your toes.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]