The River

Monday, June 28, 2004

Takin it to the streets

Here’s the funny thing about Fahrenheit 9/11: I really admire Michael Moore’s restraint.

No, seriously. I mean, you have to consider the source – this weblog writer. I’m watching world events through a very interesting filter, the progressive internet. It’s not that I have blinders, or tunnel vision (although I am human. I admit it); I look at cnn.com and John Robb and Glenn Reynolds.

But the point is, I’m rather removed. I haven’t talked to a single soldier who’s been to Iraq. Nor have I sat down to discuss politics with a parent who has a child in the military. Michael Moore has. He’s taken his camera and his sense of the common man, and woman, to talk to these people. He’s gone to Washington, and he’s been to the poor areas of his hometown, Flint, Michigan (parts of post-invasion Iraq look just like Flint, one youth notes). The last time I was in a really poor part of town was probably ten years ago, when I took a wrong turn.

In other words, from where I sit, it’s pretty ugly but it’s also mostly in my head, from which I tend to project a sometimes undisciplined imagination. The title of Bill Connolly’s site sort of sums it up: thoughts on the eve of the apocalypse.

Not that Moore is completely restrained. And a good thing too; if he were, his film would likely be lifeless. It isn’t.

Moore can’t help using his sense of humor to make fun of the Bushies, cutting and pasting their faces onto 50s era TV cowboys to name one egregious, but funny, example. And much has already been made (in many a movie review, isn’t it interesting how they all say the same thing?) about the “unfair” shots of Bush goofing for the camera a bit before he announces war on Iraq, or Paul Wolfowitz slicking his hair back with spit. And the filmmaker can’t help showing some clips in contexts designed for maximum embarrassment, but I think Moore has a point to make here, beyond derision. I think he wants the audience to see these people as, well, people. To see beyond the media-created myths and personas.

Indeed, he seems to say, these people are not only flawed, like the rest of us, they’re actually quite weird, quite disconnected from what we might term “everyday reality.” Not like the rest of us. How are they different? Well, it so happens they have enormous power. And, it further so happens, they have a will to use it, to kill people for the sake of business schemes.

I would point out how skillful Moore is in revealing the machinations behind these schemes, if it weren’t so bloody easy. Many a blogger has done so. This movie is every anguished, well argued, brilliantly analyzed, outraged and dumbstruck-at-the-duplicity post rolled into a two-hour documentary.

No, it’s not hard labor to reveal these truths. All you have to do is take them at their word. And notice how their words change with circumstances. You show Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell declaring in pre-September 11 2001 that Saddam poses no threat to his neighbors, let alone the United States. You show post 9/11 Rumsfeld saying we know where Saddam’s WDM are, around Tikrit and to the north, south, east and west (yes, that is what he says).

You show Bush. You show a boatload of President Bush, because by doing so you reveal a severe disconnect from reality. The unsettling footage of Bush sitting in an elementary school classroom for seven minutes, in full knowledge that the largest attack ever on American soil is in progress, is one example that’s startled many a viewer and reviewer. You show Bush repeating the same “war on terra” phrases over and over until he begins to look like a shifty used car salesman.

You also show another reality altogether, the one behind the marketing, the one the media refuses to show you. You air a clip of this candid assessment from Bush: of course the Iraqis are unhappy, they’re occupied. Or one of him musing at the attractiveness of a dictatorship. At what appears to be a fundraising event, you show him addressing the audience as the haves, and the have mores (this gets a laugh). “Some call you the elite,” he says. “I call you my base.”

Later, we see a meeting of such “base supporters,” a meeting of businessmen interested in capitalizing on the rush of opportunities, post invasion. Once the oil flows, says one, there’s going to be a lot of money thrown around. There will be government contracts that can be subcontracted out at a fraction of the cost. Not a lot of talk here about liberation or freedom. But Moore doesn’t say that. He just shows you what’s going on.

The overriding impression, born out in the movie poster of Moore holding a folder full of “confidential” material, is that he wants to give you the information that’s been withheld. He’s not going to level every conspiracy theory in the book or draw a nefarious conclusion from every fact, but he does have a point of view. It’s rooted in populism, concern for the plight of the common person. Take a look and see what you think, the film says.

So Moore can show you the truth behind my bald profiteering accusation several paragraphs up, that the Iraq invasion is a businessman’s venture for those who aren’t too concerned with the whole bombing families, neighborhoods, kids etc. aspect. These people don’t appear bloodthirsty, not when they’re blandly commenting that invading Iraq is “good for business but bad for the people,” because they don’t seem to realize, or care, what type of violence is behind their “opportunities.” But that’s really one of the major points – we can’t have people thinking about what the bogus “war on terra” entails, for it would endanger the ability to carry it out. Why else would the FBI be concerned with a small, keenly aware peace group, and why else would Moore reveal their infiltration of the organization?

And what are you to think about instead? Your life is in danger! The possibility that Al Qaeda might bomb your neighborhood Wal Mart, or randomly stab you with a poison pen, like in a James Bond film, says a newsreader. Moore has a good time poking fun at all the suspicious goosing of public opinion, the ridiculous airport procedures, the lack of serious “homeland” security.

There’s quite a balancing act going on in the film between humor and pathos, corrupt leaders and common citizens, the poor and the powerful. “From the corridors of power to the streets of small town America” the trailer intones. That’s true, and it’s a gut wrenching trip, past the rah, rah to the acres of unnecessary anguish caused by, yes, the felling of the twin towers, but also by the Administration’s response, inexplicable and unexplained as it is for Michael Moore and by extension the average man and woman on the streets of America.

Moore wonders about the whole Saudi connection and the fact that most of the hijackers were Saudis. And he deals with the Bush’s extensive ties to Saudi money, and the hiss-inducing backwardness of that regime, but, as some progressives have groused, nowhere does he suggest we should be invading that country.

Rather, the film is a strong anti-war statement, because as it gathers momentum, it turns to Iraq, the suffering of wounded soldiers, and, particularly, the suffering of a mother who lost her son to the war. It looks, too, at the suffering of Iraqis, particularly a mother wailing her grief and her anger after a bombing. Why? she asks plaintively. There is no militia here.

In visiting extensively with Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a young man killed when his Blackhawk was shot down over the sands of a country with the second largest oil reserves in the world, Moore really brings war down to a basic truth: the ability of leaders to direct others’ sons and daughters to kill and to die. And all we ask of these leaders, he says, is that they never send our troops into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. And, for Moore and millions of others, that case has not been made. Instead, we’ve seen countless lies designed to spread fear.

It’s all in the movie, quite a tour from 2000 to the present, from the theft of the Presidency to the exploitation of the American people to the Orwellian visions of war without end.

But it’s the suffering of the mothers that is beyond anything I could write condemning the Administration and the war. It is a hard thing to see.

I hope many an information-starved American does see it, though. Sure, the film is polemical. Sure, it’s Michael Moore and all the baggage he now carries, but it’s undeniably powerful. It’s “clearly in my voice,” Moore said in a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival. “My voice, my vision, and the way I see things. My sense of humor."

More than that, I’ve no doubt it’s one from the heart. I can’t help but applaud.

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