Watching Michael Moore
: As I walked out of the theater on the opening day of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, I thought (read: hoped) that even here, in the East Village of Manhattan, true Moore country, where the flick was already sold out all night, surely even here they wouldn’t fall for all his obvious, visual/rhetorical tricks, his propaganda too unsubtle for the cheapest tin-horn demagog.
Take this scene: Moore shows dead American soldiers in Iraq, many of them, the more blood the better. Then he says we need to replace them and he asks where they’ll come from. He takes us to his favorite man-of-the-people populist playground, Flint, MI, and says that we’ll find soldiers “in the places that had been destroyed by the economy.” He focuses on poor black men as Bush’s next victims — not even acknowledging that virtually every soldier he has just shown — and ridiculed — in the film is white. It’s all so convenient: anti-war-pro-poor-multi-culti-heartland. The rhetoric is as obvious as the gut on the guy.
But as I leave, I hear an older woman behind me, with a voice as loud at New York traffic, saying to someone who’s passing her on the escalator, obviously a stranger: “Don’t you sign up, now! Don’t you join!” I turn around. She’s saying this to a black man, just because he’s black: After all, Michael Moore said those people are all conservative cannon fodder, didn’t he? The man and the woman with him are polite enough to wait until they’re out the door before they laugh and then sadly shake their heads.
: One of the many things I’ve learned from blogging confrere Jay Rosen is that you have to stand back and investigate the assumptions that underly a media enterprise.
Moore’s assumption is venality. He assumes that President Bush and his confreres are venal, that their motives are black, that they are out to do no good, only bad, and that the only choices they make in life are between greed and power.
That’s inevitably a bad analysis. It’s the exact same analysis Bill Clinton’s enemies made of him. If they were wrong about Clinton, well then, Michael Moore is wrong about Bush. Life is never that simple, never that obvious, unless you’re a propagandist or one who believes propaganda. I especially can’t buy that analysis when we are a under attack as a nation, when we need to decide who the “us” and “them” are. The war on us as well as the dialogue among my confreres here online has made me question that assumption of venality in American politics.
Oh, you can argue Bush is incompetent; sometimes I do wonder. You can disagree with his policies; I disagree with many. You can question his intelligence; jury’s out still. I didn’t vote for Bush the last time and don’t plan to this time. But I don’t buy Moore’s Bush. To say that he’s the dark force of the universe only leads to simple-minded over-generalizations and bilious caricatures.
Like Fahrenheit 9/11.
: The real problem with the film, the really offensive thing about it, is that in Fahrenheit 9/11, we — Americans from the President on down — are portrayed as the bad guys. If there’s something wrong about bin Laden it’s that his estranged family has ties with — cue the uh-oh music — the Bush family. Saddam? Nothing wrong with him. No mention of torture and terror and tyranny. Moore shows scenes of Baghdad before the invasion (read: liberation) and in his weltanschauung, it’s a place filled with nothing but happy, smiling, giggly, overjoyed Baghdadis. No pain and suffering there. No rape, murder, gassing, imprisoning, silencing of the citizens in these scenes. When he exploits and lingers on the tears of a mother who lost her soldier-son in Iraq, and she wails, “Why did yo have to take him?” Moore does not cut to images of the murderers/terrorists (pardon me, “insurgents”) in Iraq or killed him — or even to God; he cuts to George Bush. When the soldier’s father says the young man died and “for what?”, Moore doesn’t show liberated Iraqis to reply, he cuts instead to an image of Halliburton.
He doesn’t try, not for one second, to have a discussion, to show the other side — and then cut that other side down to size with facts and figures and the slightest effort at argument. No, he just shows the one side. And that, really, is a tragedy. It would be good if we had a discussion. It would be good to have a movie that made us think and reconsider and talk.
But polemics don’t do that. They’re only made of two-by-fours.
: The cheap tricks keep on coming, mostly in what is not said. At the start of the movie, Moore fuzzes the video of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, et al to make it look as if it were recovered World War II film from Hitler’s Berchtesgaden: the bad guys in happier days. The trick is unintentionally appropriate: He’s trying to say that these guys are Nazis but he’s also using the Nazi propaganda motif to say it.
He asks the same questions, streteches out the same memes, we’ve seen on the Web regarding Bush and 9/11: Why did he sit there in that school another almost seven minutes after hearing that the second tower had been hit? The implication was that he could have done something. But how often do we hear anyone ask — certainly Moore does not — what he would have done? What if he had popped up in a panic and ran off? How would that have looked on TV to a nation and a world in such a moment of disorder? Is there some order he could have given in those minutes that the vast federal power structure could not — and, in fact, was not better equipped to handle than Bush? And if you think Bush is such a frigging idiot, isn’t it better that he sat there? The question keeps getting asked. The ellipsis carries the message. But that’s no answer.
He goes after Bush ties to the Saudis again and again but never enumerates the Saudi sins. They’re there. It wouldn’t be hard. It would be helpful. Why not? Just laziness? Or is it easier to end with another ellipsis? Conspiracies are spiced with silence.
We know that Moore opposed even the war in Afghanistan but here he doesn’t say that. Here he says we didn’t bring enough force to Afghanistan and thereby gave bin Laden “a two-month headstart.” Moore doesn’t say that Bush, with his family ties to bin Laden’s family, wanted that to happen. But the ellipsis whispers it.
He ridicules the terror threats and alerts, showing goofy stories about poison pens and model airplanes and goofier guys from the canned-bean crowd showing off their terror shelters. He gets a congressman, Rep. Jim McDermott, to downright say that the alerts are all engineered to keep us on edge. The implication is — the sllipsis says — that we’re not in danger. I watch this scant blocks from where almost 3,000 Americans were killed that day. Oh, yes, Moore, we are in danger.
But Moore wants to pooh-pooh the danger and make it into a conspiracy: “Was this really about our safety or…” [pregnant ellipsis] “…something else?” He adds (and I can’t read one word of my scribbled transcription): “The terrorism threat wasn’t waht this was all about. They just wanted us to be fearful enough to get behind their plan.”
Of course, it was all about Iraq…. Wasn’t it?…
: If you don’t believe that, well, says Moore, you’re an idiot. You’re Britney Spears, shown in all her ditziness saying, “Honestly, I think we should just trust our President.” There’s your spokesman for the other side: Britney.
Or you’re a bloodthirsty American goon, which is how Moore portrays soldiers who rush into battle hopped up on rock ‘n’ roll. He spares us the obvious napalm, morning, smell thing.
In Moore’s view, you’re either with him or against him. Hmmm, who else looks at the world that way?
Yup, Moore is just he mirror image of what he despises. He is the O’Reilly… the Bush of the left.
: After leaving the theater and walking by the black man now shaking his head at what Moore had wrought and the people with bring-down-Bush clipboards, I made my way back to New Jersey through the PATH train at the World Trade Center where, most of you know, I was on 9/11. And now I was shaking my head. Michael Moore did not present bin Laden and the terrorists and religious fanatics (from other lands) as the enemy who did this. No, to him, our enemy is within. To him, our enemy is us. And that’s worse than stupid and sad and it’s most certainly not entertaining. It’s disgusting.
: Later, I read Christopher Hitchens’ wonderful fisking of the film.
And then I read A.O. Scott’s mealy-mouthed review in The Times. He points out that the movie is full of crap in many ways: “…blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery…” Hey, blurb that!
[Fahrenheit 9/11] is many things: a partisan rallying cry, an angry polemic, a muckraking inquisition into the use and abuse of power. But one thing it is not is a fair and nuanced picture of the president and his policies. What did you expect? Mr. Moore is often impolite, rarely subtle and occasionally unwise. He can be obnoxious, tendentious and maddeningly self-contradictory. He can drive even his most ardent admirers crazy.
But then Scott lets Moore off the hook — and himself off the hook with that audience that applauded the flick in the East Village, which is Times Country, too — with this: “He is a credit to the republic.”
I guess he’d say the same thing of Rush Limbaugh, then.
Scott keeps going. On the one hand:
After you leave the theater, some questions are likely to linger about Mr. Moore’s views on the war in Afghanistan, about whether he thinks the homeland security program has been too intrusive or not intrusive enough, and about how he thinks the government should have responded to the murderous jihadists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11.
Right. But on the other hand:
At the same time, though, it may be that the confusions trailing Mr. Moore’s narrative are what make “Fahrenheit 9/11″ an authentic and indispensable document of its time. The film can be seen as an effort to wrest clarity from shock, anger and dismay, and if parts of it seem rash, overstated or muddled, well, so has the national mood.
Crap. It is not creditworthy only to attack and call that discussion and democracy; to insult our intelligence with half, quarter, and untruths; to stifle debate with polemic rather than provoke debate with facts; to mock the people he exploits on film; to gloss over his own outrageous opinions for the sake of convenience; to turn his guns on his own people, letting those who attacked us off as free as birds.
No, this is no more good democracy than it is good filmmaking.
: EPILOGUE: The movie was Topic A in Howard Stern’s opening this morning and the discussion there demonstrates exactly what is wrong with Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore provided no facts for an honest discussion. He provided only fuel for the fire, bullets for bombast.
Granted, this ain’t exactly the Algonquin Round Table; it doesn’t pretend to be. Stern switched sides so completely that he tries not to acknowledge his former support for the war and for Bush as command-in-chief against the terrorists. Stern wasn’t fooled about WMD as he tries to argue now; he was — like me — a Tom Friedman war supporter who believed that we had to do this somewhere, we had to bring democracy to somewhere in the Middle East and Iraq was a good place to do it because Saddam was a tyrant and his continued rule was, in good measure, our fault. It’s possible to be against Bush in this election and still be for the war and at the same time think that we’ve messed up the aftermath; it’s still possible to support Bush as the sitting president while wanting to unseat him. As Bill Clinton said on Today today when asked whether the release of his book would distract voters: “The American people can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Nonetheless, I grant that Stern is hardly trying for a nuanced argument. And the only person to argue against him is his TV director, a graduate of Glassboro State, which ain’t exactly Yale.
Still, the argument that raged for 20 loud minutes on Stern this morning will be replayed by water coolers all across America. And you could say that is good for Democracy. You could say that if the people arguing were armed by the film that causes the arguments with facts and intelligent views of the issues. But, instead, they’re armed only with one side, half-facts, and bile. That doesn’t make for good dialogue or democracy.
: BY THE WAY: The commercials for the film are still saying it’s not rated. It has been rated R because of the copious gore and the appeal of that rating lost, even with Mario Cuomo arguing the case. So the commercial isn’t quite, well, telling the truth.
: LINKS: Fred Wilson reacts to this post and asks whether I react similarly to Rush Limbaugh; in his comments, I list many posts where I do. He also says it’s time for the left to play hardball. Hardball yes, Dodgeball, no. Hardball with real facts and reasoned arguments and intelligence. Mimicking the worst of the right is not what the left should do — the Rush of the left in Randi Rhodes on Air America or Bizarro Rush in Michael Moore on film. We’re smarter than that, aren’t we?
Fred says I’m angry. Yes. I’m angry this movie isn’t better made.
Says Jason Kottke:
The film, while entertaining — very funny in parts and at times powerfully moving — was ultimately disappointing for me….
Fahrenheit 9/11 is so much about Michael Moore’s opinion that it’s difficult to go through that process of finding the truth. The frustrating thing is that Moore has a point, but he’s unable to get himself out of the way enough to tell us the story so we can make up our own minds about it….
One last thought: Fahrenheit 9/11 is many things, but for pity’s sake let’s not call it a documentary.
- Ty Burr, Boston Globe
Here are Reason’s Nick Gillespie’s links.
Jimspeak: “I think [Moore] and Madonna should get lost on some island somewhere, never to be heard from again …”
Tony Pierce says Michael Moore is in a dog fight and he’s the dog Tony’s backing.
: MORE MOORE LINKS: Andrew Sullivan says:
I will say this: I will generally go see anything. I even sat through “The Passion of the Christ.” But I cannot bring myself to go to this piece of vile, hateful propaganda.
I sent him email urging him to see it anyway, just because I’d love to see what he writes.
Richard Bennett says my seeing the movie deserves your sympathy.
And here’s Glenn Reynolds.