Fahrenheit 9/11

There are 2 interesting trends taking place right now in popular culture.  Firstly, President George W. Bush is getting goofed on more than ever, and secondly, it’s no longer taboo to dramatize 9/11. 
 
President Bush has been the rightful subject of ridicule for years on late night Television.  Leno, Letterman, Maher and Conan have told countless jokes about how dumb he is.  Ditto for Saturday Night Live.  But have you noticed that the chorus of dissenters in Hollywood is getting bigger and louder? 
 
5 years ago this month, there was a short-lived TV show called That’s My Bush, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the guys that gave us South Park.  (By the way, if Vice President Al Gore won the 2000 election, their show was going to be called Absolute Al.)  Only 8 episodes made it to air before it got cancelled because, apparently, the ratings were bad and it was an expensive show to produce, despite strong reviews.  (All this according to the Internet Movie Database.)  Even though it was really a goof on the whole sitcom genre and not any President in particular, with the exception of the aforementioned comedians, it was the first Hollywood production, that I can remember, to poke fun at the Republican President.
 
Then 9/11 happened and there seemed to be a sabbatical on taking pot shots at Bush.  As the second Persian Gulf War was being pushed by the Administration and not fully scrutinized by the media (with some notable exceptions) Hollywood started releasing a number of war films like We Were Soldiers, Hart’s War, Tears Of The Sun, Black Hawk Down and Windtalkers.  In 2003, while the war was on, anybody who was critical of the President was either booed, scorned or subjected to needless boycotts and slander.  Michael Moore got booed at the Oscars when he questioned the wisdom of the war after receiving a standing ovation for winning the Best Feature Documentary prize for his marvellous but flawed Bowling For Columbine.  The Dixie Chicks suffered a bit of a backlash simply because their lead singer, Natalie Maines, stated that she was ashamed the American President was from Texas.  (What wasn’t said very often at the time was that immediately afterwards, her bandmate, Emily Robison, said that, nonetheless, they supported the troops.  Hardly controversial.)  The Dixie Chicks’ boycott proved ineffective (their 2003 American tour was a massive success) and they’re back with a new album in a much different political climate.  Their new single even addresses what happened 3 years ago.
 
In 2002, if you saw a President Bush-type bit in a movie – The Master of Disguise and I Spy come to mind – it was most likely to not be very hard-hitting or critical. Today, with the Administration battling scandal after scandal after scandal, Hollywood has suddenly grown a spine.  Leslie Nielsen plays a hapless Bush-like President in Scary Movie 4.  Dennis Quaid does the same thing in American Dreamz.  And as the President tries to hang on for the rest of his final term, I’m sure things are going to get a lot worse for him in real life and in the movies.
 
That brings me to the other interesting trend happening now in the movies:  9/11.  2 prominent Hollywood films are coming and one wonders if people will give them a fair shake or, as I sadly suspect, will loudly complain without actually seeing the movies, which is a disgraceful way to go.  Later this summer Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center hits theatres (look for it in August) but first up is United 93.  Already there’s controversy.  The trailer has been pulled in some theatres because some filmgoers complained (a ridiculous reason to stop showing a trailer) and some are loudly wondering whether we’re ready for a movie like this. 
 
That leads me to my review of Fahrenheit 9/11, the terrific Michael Moore documentary that became a massive hit in the summer of 2004.  I saw it in the theatre and was quite pleased with how it turned out, as you’ll read.  He’s planning a sequel for release next year and one hopes it goes even further in its investigation of the shadiness of the Bush Adminstration than the original did.
 
This is a fairly lengthy review that has never been seen before.  Some of it is a little out-of-date.  I reference the 2004 Presidential election which was still a few months away and I gauge Michael Moore’s chances of winning another Oscar.  He foolishly didn’t submit it in the Documentary Feature category.  Instead, he pushed it for Best Picture.  An arrogant mistake.  If the sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11 becomes a massive success artistically and commercially, I would expect him to try for another Documentary Oscar.
 
I wonder how many disenfranchised conservatives will watch this movie now and whether they will still be quick to dismiss what Moore argues for in the movie.  An idea worth exploring as the American mid-term elections approach.
 
FAHRENHEIT 9/11
By Dennis Earl

Michael Moore is the bravest American not in a military uniform. I have never seen anyone so willing to tell a story that the mainstream media seems so unwilling to tell themselves. His fourth documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, covers President George W. Bush’s troubled first term in office. It begins with a reminder of the Florida recount in 2000 (“Was it all just a dream?” he sarcastically opines.) and leads to a scene in Congress I remember very well: numerous members of the Congressional Black Caucus pleading with the President of the Senate (the defeated Vice President Al Gore) to protest the results of the election and possibly re-open the whole sorry mess in order to get to the bottom of it all. Gore refuses because not one Senator agreed to sign on with the Caucus. A rule’s a rule, after all, even if breaking it meant giving him the White House.

It’s curious that Moore would open with that because much later when he focuses on the second Gulf War, we meet several, young black men from his hometown of Flint, Michigan who either have relatives fighting in Iraq or are considering going there to fight themselves because they have no other employment options. (We learn that Flint, officially, has a 17% unemployment rate; unofficially, one woman speculates it’s probably closer to 50%.) There’s a fantastic scene where we meet two recruiters who have the Midas touch when it comes to convincing lower-income Americans to not only think about a military career but possibly fight in a war right now. One guy’s a little unsure so one of the recruiters asks him about Shaggy since the guy is interested in pursuing a music career. He’s a little dumbfounded when the recruiter tells him Shaggy’s a former Marine. And they’ve got a sale. Also worth noting is that the recruiters never bother to go to the richer areas in the city. Curious and sad how history never changes.

The film does a good job exploring some familiar stuff regarding the Bush family’s seemingly shady dealings with the Saudi Royal family and the Bin Laden clan. Moore compares Bush’s salary of $400,000 to the billion-plus supplied by the Saudis and convincingly argues that the Saudis have easily bought influence with this White House. They also have a vested interest in our economy: 6-7%. (We learn these relationships go back 3 decades to the time Bush’s father was CIA director. Interesting sidenote: he’s the rare ex-president who still looks at incoming classified intelligence.) We find out that the Bin Laden family was never questioned about Osama because they were flown out of the country 2 days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. While everybody else’s flights were grounded (including Ricky Martin’s!), the Bin Laden clan (who still maintain contact with Osama, sadly enough) were able to get away with no problem. Moore includes clips of Joe Friday on Dragnet to illustrate his well-taken point that we should’ve questioned the Bin Laden relatives. Are we letting Osama escape our grasp on purpose? We did, after all, give him a 2-month headstart during the botched Afghanistan war.

Since this is a Michael Moore film, there are several satirical jabs at the Republican Bush Administration. I particularly liked the Bonanza parody, the use of the theme from Greatest American Hero during Bush’s ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, goofs on the Coalition of the Willing (mostly puny, unpowerful countries) and all the stuff involving abuses of the Patriot Act, (a sheriff’s deputy spying on a small, peace organization that swaps stories and eats cookies) incompetent screeners at the airport (a mother having to drink all of her baby’s breast milk because of its supposed dangers, for instance) and the stunning refusal of every politician Moore comes in contact with to sign up their kids for the war. (One polite politician humours Moore by taking a brochure. I wonder how long it took him to throw it in the garbage.)

The section devoted to Iraq could’ve been even more jarring and perhaps tighter but it is still quite effective. I am reminded of Gangs Of New York and that stunning scene where all the poor, male, Irish immigrants go directly off the boat and right into the firestorm of the Civil War while the more well-off naturalized Americans, who can afford to pay their way out of the war, hurriedly do so. Now, the rich just don’t volunteer. The poor have no choice.

It doesn’t take much to make President Bush look ridiculous but the film wisely lets him do it all by himself without being unfair. There’s some odd footage of the President looking bewildered just before he delivers one of his most important addresses to the nation: the announcement of the beginning of attacks on Iraq on March 19, 2003, 2 days ahead of schedule. He appears to be smirking quite a bit before turning serious when he’s on the air. He smirks over and over in the film just like in real life. It is deeply troubling. During the opening titles we get some interesting behind the scenes footage of important Republicans, including Bush, getting their make-up done, fixing their hair and, absurdly, laughing, as if none of what they’re doing is at all grave. The obvious implication is that they think this is all showbiz and not at all real. It’s hard to disagree.

One wonders if it’s at all possible for a conservative Republican to like this movie without actually agreeing with it or, better still, to change their mind about the war and/or the Bush Administration in general. For me, having been familiar with numerous elements of the film, I wasn’t exactly a tough sell. I never liked Bush. I always viewed him as shady and completely unserious and now I view him as deeply scared of being President of the United States to the point where he doesn’t do the right thing under pressure. One of the most overpublicized moments in the film is the 7-minute video (shown in clips here) of the President continuing to stay in that damn classroom reading My Pet Goat with a class of young kids instead of taking charge of a scary situation and trying to reassure the public that things would get better. Can you imagine if FDR did this in 1941 while Pearl Harbour went on? How about JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis? It seems unfathomable. I shouldn’t be surprised since it’s revealed here that Bush spends nearly half his time on vacation. (42%, according to the Washington Post)

Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a great film. There are numerous facts it leaves out that would make this administration look even more culpable than it already is but it is deeply revealing, never boring, sometimes hilarious and it always makes you think. Its biggest flaw is its overly sunny portrayal of Iraq in the moments before it would be bombed to kingdom come. The people seem just a little too happy to live in a country ruled by a ruthless and widely unloved dictator. But, in the end, the movie isn’t about Saddam at all. It’s about the credibility of the American President. And he seems to have very little left. There’s a stunning montage where we learn from Powell and Rice, in early 2001, that Iraq is contained, not in possession of weapons of mass destruction and not a threat to us. Good luck finding similar quotes AFTER September 11.

As we head into another tedious election, one wonders, regardless of the outcome, if things will get better. If we elect a Democrat instead of a Republican this time, will that solve all our problems? The movie is mostly critical of the Republican higher-ups. At one point, it criticizes the Democrats for agreeing with the rationale for the war and voting for it. (Sadly, Senator Byrd, the only guy to vote against it, is not mentioned nor interviewed.) It seems to me that Moore is limiting his attacks too much at times. A democracy cannot flourish without a healthy opposition. It should’ve delved deeper into why they sided with the administration. Do they have ties with the Saudis as well?

The talking head interviews in the film include some outspoken Democratic politicians and a couple of authors who all offer interesting insight into this administration. (One senator says the Patriot Act, like a lot of bills, was passed without being read. The administration has a sneaky way of printing bills in the middle of the night so that it is virtually impossible to read it all and therefore voice a reasonable objection.)

It seems impossible to make a great documentary about this administration in under 2 hours. There’s plenty of areas where they are vulnerable. Although it focuses mainly on the war and its related areas, another documentary could focus entirely on Bush’s failed environmental policies, for instance, or even his astounding reluctance to curb excessive spending. Fahrenheit 9/11 arrives at a time when the documentary genre is entering an exciting new phase, a remarkable period of commerciality and widespread critical acclaim. When the nominees for Best Documentary Feature are announced next January, there’s a very good chance that, for the first time, all 5 nominees will be well-known to the public. And there might not be a guaranteed Oscar victory for Michael Moore. But with this remarkable film, he has a very good chance.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 22, 2006
3:02 p.m. 

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Published in: on April 22, 2006 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

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