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Michael Moore … and Dickens

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If you’re a typical right-wing conservative hoping to gauge the threat posed by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, you hopefully weren’t listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show on June 18 — you might have left with a huge dose of false hope. Here is the Dittohead-in-Chief, offering fatherly consolation to a teenage girl who wanted to know how to best protest the film:

I found out that Moore is lying about the number of screens his movie is playing on. He’s out there saying it’s going to be on a thousand screens, then he revised it down and said it’s going to be on 700 screens, then he says no, we’ll get it on 600 screens. Turns out it’s on 412 screens now. That’s the screens where it is scheduled to appear, 412 only.

What a difference a week makes. On June 25, Moore’s hilarious Bush-slapping phillipic opened in over twice the number of theaters Rush claimed, and became the Number One movie in the country, a fairly impressive feat considering that the movie’s nearest competition — White Chicks and Dodgeball: The Movie — opened with triple the screens.

For the moment, I’d say the numbers say about everything you need to know about the mood of the country. Over half the voting public rejected George Bush for the White House, half (more or less) think he’s doing a shitty job, and I suspect it was a kind of “representative half” that came out to see him drawn and quartered Moore-style.

If my Friday evening viewing is any indication, this is the kind of movie that people who don’t watch movies turn out to see. It wasn’t a movie crowd. It was a crowd of Democrats: young people, progressive grannies, hippies, dogmatic leftists, the two or three people in town with Kucinich stickers and — so I gathered from the restless vibe that settled over the house as we watched trailers for one blockbuster after the next — people who would only come out to see a movie if it was “true.”

Whether that’s what they were watching is debatable, at the very least; like all Moore’s movies, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a creatively edited melange of both original and funniest-home-video moments (as well as some flat out disturbing ones), layered with nifty cool musical cues, and it’s forceful and impassioned eventhough I can’t say I ever was able to completely lay my skepticism aside.

Moore pieces together this extensive conspiracy theory which makes the case, first, that the 2000 election was a fraud (which it was), stage-managed entirely by all the Bush family forces in TV and government (which I didn’t quite buy, although it was interesting to know that Bush’s brother-in-law worked at Fox News); second, that Bush is a blithering idiot (no argument here) who had his head up his ass when the planes struck the World Trade Centers, and third, that the Bush family and the Saudis have historically been partners in crime, and that the war is more than anything about keeping them and Dick Cheney and his friends at Haliburton up to their collective asses in profits.

He also does the usual bit of grand-standing, like asking Congressman to sign up their children to participate in the war — as iof they could — and driving around washington in an ice-cream truck, reading the Patriot Act over the loudspeakers.

How much of Moore’s theory of the Bush-Saud connection is true? Can’t say, although he does spend a lot of time with the author of House of Bush, House of Saud, which seems to give it a little heft. It’s believeable more in the parts than as a whole; like one of Limbaugh’s rants, what you mainly come away with is a sense of his own paranoia.

But paranoiacs — as critics nationwide continue to argue — do have their points, and the movie has it’s share of stuff you haven’t seen elsewhere. For starters, there’s Bush’s immediate response to the attacks; as it turns out, he heard about the first plane hitting before the photo op where he read “My Pet Goat” to an elementary class in Florida, and went ahead with his plans anyway, which either makes him a sterling example of grace under pressure or (Moore’s version) a confused leader of the Free World who had heretofore been too busy taking vacation and playing golf to really grasp the terrorist threat.

We see frankly cynical oil executives who speak about the money to be made in Iraq. We see poor black kids in flat-on-its-ass Flint, Michigan, site of Moore’s classic debut Roger and Me, where recruiters try to interest them in career in the Marines, possibly their only way out of grinding poverty. We meet a cranky old leftist who got a visit from the FBI for publicly calling Bush an asshole. We visit a group of aging peaceniks who find one of their members is a spy. We see young soldiers — eerily reminiscent of the ones in Three Kings — going into war all gung-ho, blasting away at targets as speed metal music pounds through their helmets and fucking with prisoners Abu Ghraib-style. We also see kids coming home limbless — and, most poignantly of all, and most effectively — we see a military mom whose life is changed when her own son dies in Iraq; who goes from hating war protestors to becoming one.

None of which, as David Edelstein pointed out in his agreeably mixed review in Slate.com — one of the best pieces of writing on film I’ve read all year — quite gets Moore off the hook. Hard as it is not to be stirred by the movie’s anger and passion, it’s equally hard to give it a total pass. William Raspberry got it right in The Washington Post:

Some of his facts may be wrong and some of his connections strained, but his attitude is right. What’s more, he’ll say in plain language what nice educated people cannot bring themselves to say: The man is a devil.

Raspberry’s comments irked Andrew Sullivan — friend and defender of that beacon of journalistic ethics Matt Drudge — who finds both Moore and Raspberry lacking in character. Understandably, Sullivan’s main beef with Moore is that he doesn’t share Sullivan’s viewpoint; the grieving mom was robbed of context, mainly that “the war might have been justified, that it has done some good, that the casualty rate has, in fact, been remarkably low, and so on.”

This misses the point. It’s not a fair, judicious, sober-minded film; it’s a case for the prosecution that strings together the most damaging facts in the most damning possible way. And I think what is true with Moore’s film is what’s true of a lot criminal cases: even when you give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, truths emerge that, maybe, can’t quite be argued away. That’s the difference between a false portrait and a successfully exaggerated one; the latter draws the attention to real flaws.

Think of Michael Moore — if you dare, and I’ll admit it’s a bit of a stretch — the way Peter Gay described Charles Dickens in his book Savage Reprisals. For Gay, the man who wrote Bleak House was an “angry anarchist” who “set out to offend as many constituencies as he could manage … an equal-opportunity satirist” whose great novel is a “lovingly cultivated display of hatred,” a radical who would far rather point out abuses against society — sometimes completely outdated ones — than he would the reforms that were made in his own lifetime. For Dickens, “politics was a matter far more of passion than of information,” his “hostility to authority never faltered,” and he could never exaggerate the goodness “quite as much as he exaggerated the vices of his all too imperfect country.”

(A personal aside: Crass exaggeration is vital to understanding a culture, isn’t it? Why else is the liveliest character in Spanish literature a lunatic named Don Quixote? Why else do the French venerate Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi? Why else would Ireland find its reflection in the snotgreen cesspools of Ulysses? Why else are Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson the two most vital American TV characters of the past fifty years?)

In the best Dickensian tradition, then, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a panorama of all the war-loving, Bible-waving, gun-toting greed and grime of the last four years; a Molotov cocktail lobbed in the direction of President Dumbass, and — as even old Rush should be aware by now — it’s a hit.

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  • http://www.iamrighturpie.blogspot.com/ jadester

    this is the msot balanced review of moore’s latest i’ve read so far.
    Thanks for not being rabidly fr against him
    “lies! it’s all lies!”
    “It’s nothing but the gospel truth!”
    are the general vibes i get from most other reviews.