Film and TV

Less Is Moore

Love him or hate him, filmmaker Michael Moore knows how to get under your skin. As a political muckraker, he favors schoolboy rage over measured argument; as a social satirist, he never fails to slug us with a hammer when a scalpel might serve him better. A self-appointed guardian of American morality, a happy citizen-warrior, he often maddens many of those who share his views because his on-camera signature stunts are so adolescent and self-absorbed. But even his army of enemies must acknowledge the power and passion of his all-out offensives against the greedy, the corrupt and the willfully blind -- whether it's the out-of-touch chairman of General Motors or doddering old Charlton Heston, holed up in a Bel Air mansion with his beloved gun collection. Lincoln Steffens and Frank Norris are dead. We have Michael Moore.

Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, is an incendiary broadside against the Bush administration, and it is -- by a huge margin -- the populist filmmaker's most effective and focused work to date, not least because Moore doesn't insert himself much into the proceedings. In recent TV interviews, he has called it an "op-ed piece" rather than a "documentary," and that seems apt: He feels no more obligated to "balance" his political views than, say, right-wing shouting heads like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly do. The war in Iraq has so divided the nation that combatants on both sides are increasingly unwilling to give quarter. What will happen next in Baghdad and Fallujah, or in the crucial general election on November 2, is anybody's guess. Meanwhile, the American debate has grown bloody in fang and claw. Suddenly, it's 1968 again -- even at the movies.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (which borrows its title from Fahrenheit 451, the futuristic Ray Bradbury novel about book-burning that was made into a film by Francois Truffaut) can't hope to keep up with the daily papers, the 24-hour news channels and the bloggers, but the particulars of its indictment are extraordinarily vivid, if familiar. Bush and his brother Jeb stole the election in Florida. Before 9/11, the administration ignored obvious threats from al-Qaeda. The Bush family's ties to Saudi oil interests are vast and self-serving. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is a tragic sham because Saddam Hussein posed no threat to America, had no weapons of mass destruction and no link to Osama bin Laden. We add, at the risk of overload, Moore's insistence that the Halliburton Corporation (once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney) is a shameless war profiteer and that the president, in league with John Ashcroft's Justice Department, has engineered a post-9/11 climate of fear in the country to advance his, and his underlings', own hidden agendas.

Need it be said that, through the careful use of news clips, Moore shows Bush to be a shifty-eyed nitwit, Donald Rumsfeld a belligerent absolutist and Colin Powell a pathetic lackey? Those who detest the Bushies are sure to savor the film's most demented moment: Pentagon ideologue Paul Wolfowitz, preparing for a TV interview, suddenly licks his pocket comb, runs it through his hair and gets a wild look in his eyes. Wolfie won't soon live this one down, no matter many how Sunnis he gets to slaughter.

The film doesn't say anything about our shattered alliances in Europe, our pariah status in formerly friendly Arab nations or our unwitting role in turning Iraq into a terrorist hotbed, but you can't have it all.

Moore's usual methods -- the shlubby ambush interview, the preachy voiceover -- are soft-pedaled here, probably because administration officials have been so adept at damning themselves with their public evasions, contradictions and lies. Assorted Republicans are condemning Moore for what they see as trick editing and misrepresentation, and Miramax's parent company, Walt Disney, refused to let it distribute the film (it went to Lions Gate). But there's no arguing with much of what Fahrenheit reveals: the Taliban invited to Washington, oil-pipeline chicanery in Saudi Arabia, Rummy's idiotic assertions about the "humanity" of bomb targeting in Baghdad, Bush's empty WMD claims.

Here and there, Moore indulges his teenage side, so evident in Bowling for Columbine and Roger & Me. There's a clip of gum-chewing Britney Spears endorsing the president. We see Moore at the wheel of an ice-cream truck, reciting the Patriot Act through the loudspeaker to all of Washington. In the company of a dissident Marine, he bushwhacks passing congressmen on a D.C. sidewalk, asking if they would be willing to enlist their children to serve as soldiers in Iraq.

More effectively, the Flint, Michigan, homeboy talks with poor black kids (cannon fodder at the ready) in that economically ravaged city, visits U.S. soldiers in Baghdad on Christmas Eve and, in a heartbreaking sequence, spends time with a grieving mother, Lila Lipscomb, whose son has been killed in the war -- and who sees no justification in that. The right-wingers will hate it, but Moore's impassioned condemnation of the Bush arrogance slams you in the innards. For a filmmaker who sometimes shoots from the hip and squanders his talent, it's a deeply felt act of patriotism whose authenticity should give Americans some small comfort, even as it pisses off the radical nationalists who currently rule Washington and seek to impose their version of democracy on an occupied nation that posed no threat to us.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo