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Scott Larson

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Still Moore

In 2003, it seemed as though every other column I wrote was about some entertainment personality who had died. In 2004, it seems as though every other column is about Michael Moore. After this one, I intend to give it a rest. Until and unless I get provoked again.

During my recent visit to Seattle, I had a chance to discuss Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 with my friend Melanie, who, I think, was disappointed that I did not embrace the Michigan-born filmmaker. I insisted that I hadn’t pre-judged his latest movie, which I still hadn’t seen at that point. “That’s not what it sounds like,” she replied, having read my previous columns.

So, I took a look at what I had written, to decide for myself whether or not I had been fair. Most of my comments were based on Moore’s body of work in general and not specifically on the new film, so that seems defensible. But I did refer to Fahrenheit 9/11 as “a Democratic party informercial” before having seen it, and I’ll concede that this was a bit dishonest, since I was basing this on second-hand accounts of the movie. Still, having now seen the film, I don’t think I was wrong—except on technical grounds. Moore’s defenders will point out that, in the movie, he isn’t particularly complimentary about any politicians, Republican or Democrat. Yet the undeniable aim of the film is to undermine President Bush and, in practical terms, the only possible beneficiary of that, in a two-party system such as ours, is the opposition party. So, yes, this is the best free two-hour campaign ad that the Democratic Party, or any political party for that matter, has probably ever gotten.

So, was I fair to Fahrenheit 9/11 in my review of it? In a lot of ways, the fuss over this movie is comparable to the furor earlier in the year over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Both movies were controversial before, during and after their releases, mainly because they touched a lot of hot buttons for a lot of people vis-à-vis their personal beliefs. And both debuted very well at the box office, largely because of their respective controversies and concerted campaigns to get people out to see them. I gave the Gibson film a positive three-star rating, but the Moore film got a mere average two-star rating. What accounts for the difference? It comes down to this. Although The Passion of the Christ was based on both (very distant) historical events as well as religious testaments, it was a dramatized film with a script and actors. Fahrenheit 9/11 used film footage shot by Moore and from other sources. It was not a dramatization. It was a commentary on recent events, using primary source information. This begs to be reviewed differently from a feature film. If Moore had hired an actor to play George W. Bush, as Oliver Stone hired Anthony Hopkins to star in Nixon, then I would have looked at it in a different way.

But isn’t Fahrenheit 9/11 really just a piece of entertainment, albeit laced with political opinion? Is it not humorous and playful, and should it not be judged on those grounds? Yes, the film is actually at its best when it focuses on being a parody. The sequence where W. and his administration are portrayed as the Cartwrights on Bonanza is quite funny and makes a valid point: that many people see Bush as a cowboy. This is the sort of thing done all the time on late-night comedy shows, and it is indeed a valid form of entertainment. But much of the film is pure commentary, and very serious commentary at that. More than a couple of sequences are laden with pathos. It insists on being taken seriously as a piece of opinion journalism, and that is how I feel I must judge it. But my judgment isn’t about whether I agree with Moore politically or not. I’ll let my readers decide about that for themselves. For this web page, I am mainly interested in how good a job he has done of making his case and informing the public. It is interesting that a number of commentators have made the point of agreeing with Moore’s ideas but criticizing his tactics.

When I began my review of the film by saying “it’s 1972 again,” it was because the movie was like a throwback to so many I had seen on university campuses during the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War. A very energized political left was fully engaged in painting a picture of evil corporations pulling the strings behind the scenes and capitalist greed being responsible for war and all the world’s other ills. During the expanding affluence of the 1980s and 1990s (not to mention the decline and fall of the Soviet Union), the “capitalism is evil” message seem to have faded into history. That is why I called Moore’s anti-big-corporation views “quaint” when I wrote about The Big One six years ago. It was near the height of the tech boom, and the movie had left even its audience at the Galway Film Fleadh a bit confused. Afterward, I saw Moore standing around alone in the lobby, as if waiting for someone to come up and talk to him, but I didn’t see anyone approach him. At that point, he seemed like a dinosaur. More difficult economic times and, more particularly, the war in Iraq seem to have changed all that.

So, how does Fahrenheit 9/11 measure up as a piece of opinion journalism? In a word, poorly. It is certainly one-sided, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Personally, I think that it is more effective to present two sides and then justify taking one side over the other, based on the facts. But there is nothing inherently wrong in presenting just one side and letting readers/viewers seek out the opposing side themselves. The problem is that Moore willfully twists and distorts, as if he didn’t trust the bare facts to be sufficient to support him. To people disposed not to like him anyway, this makes his motives seem downright sinister. To get an idea of what I am talking about, here is a little pop quiz. If you have seen Fahrenheit 9/11, tell me which of the following statements are true and which are false:

  • Fox News was the first network to declare George W. Bush the winner of Florida’s electoral votes.

  • A number of Saudis, including relatives of Osama Bin Laden, were allowed to fly out of the United States while a ban on all flights was in effect.

  • As governor of Texas, Bush met with representatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

  • Unocal has constructed, or is in the process of constructing, an oil pipeline through Afghanistan

  • Representative Porter Goss of the of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence does not have a toll-free phone number.

    The damning thing is not that all of the above statements are untrue. The damning thing is that the movie does not actually state any of the above, yet many people will come away from the film thinking that it does. To take a relatively trivial but telling example, the movie correctly says that Representative Goss is “lying” when says he has an 800 number. The truth is that his committee has an 877 number, which is also toll-free. As for the other points, you can check out the facts on any number of web sites that have sprouted up to rebut impressions and, in some case, falsehoods included in the film. The most serious and even-handed one I have found is by a fellow named Dave Kopel. (I can’t judge his motives, but he says he endorsed and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000—just like Michael Moore.)

    Now, while there is some valid information presented in Fahrenheit 9/11, an awful lot of the movie is downright misleading and, in my opinion, distracts from the debate about the Bush administration’s record on the War on Terror. Fortunately, in this day and age, it is easy enough to check Moore’s (or anyone else’s) assertions and apparent assertions by doing a bit of research on the internet. The problem is that, once you have discovered enough things (as one does in the case of this movie) that are misleading or wrong, it becomes too much trouble to keep checking further. At some point, a reasonable person simply decides that Michael Moore is not a reliable source of information and stops listening to him for anything other than a bit of entertainment.

    -S.L., 22 July 2004

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