Cinematically Thinking
   Reflections On "Farenheit 9/11"
   by Tom Meek

Moore Controversy: One Rambling Critic Tackles Another

When it came to the handling of Michael Moore’s acerbic documentary, Fahrenheit 911, the conservative powers at Disney weren’t too astute. If they were trying to snuff it from distribution, then why did they sell it (back) to Harvey and Bob Weinstein? You knew the co-founders of Miramax would find a distributor (and they did through a venture with Lion’s Gate). Plus by creating a maelstrom of controversy when they said they wouldn’t release the Bush bashing polemic, Disney forever conjoined itself to the film (if they were looking to distance themselves from the controversy, they got backlashed) and all but assured it of box-office success. In its opening week alone, Fahrenheit 911 was the number one grossing film, raking in over twenty million dollars, making it the first documentary to score the top spot (which it did on 800 plus screens, the next runner up was available for viewing on more than double that number of screens). That same week, Disney released the slight, feel-good documentary America’s Heart and Soul. Whatever they’d hoped to gain by the gesture, it’s clear that the lessons from the Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ brouhaha hadn’t fully sunk in at Mickey and Co.

The marriage between Miramax and Disney (which purchased Miramax in the late-mid 90s) has always been an odd duck. From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense; a Kill Bill movie costs about half of what it takes to cook a Jerry Bruckheimer produced film (take Gone in 60 Seconds or Enemy of the State) and yet nets as much, if not more. Not to mention that since 1994, when Pulp Fiction crashed the Oscar party, Miramax has been a perennial force at the annual Hollywood awards pageant, if not dynasty (Chicago, Shakespeare in Love and so on). Conceptually however, Miramax staples like hit man Vincent Vega or Billy Bob Thorton’s Bad Santa don't quite fit in with the image of clean family fun that Mickey and Donald have come to represent, though Disney is no stranger to odd ties; one of its tentacles owns the radio channel that controversial right-wing talkmeister Rush Limbaugh employs as a bully pulpit. And while I’m not certain where Disney, head Michael Eisner’s political allegiances lie, it is intriguing to note that the mega conglomerate’s big dollar theme park is located in Florida, home of Jeb Bush, Governor and brother of Moore’s target. Ironically (or poetically depending on what side you come down on) much of Moore’s pot-stirring spectacle, which took top honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, keeps winding it’s way back to the Sunshine State. It opens there with a quick recap of Election 2000, deriding Jeb and the Republican Party for hijacking the presidency (it always comes back to those dang hanging chads!) and then later, hangs on a bewildered Dubya as he’s informed of the attacks on the World Trade Towers while visiting a Florida elementary school.

Moore’s never been the meticulous doucementarian that D.A. Pennebaker, Federick Wiseman or Errol Morris are, he’s more of cinematic pundit who employs shock and droll wit to hammer home his points. He doesn’t make his case by laying out facts in a stepwise fashion, but instead launches a salvo of incendiary imagery, carefully juxtaposed to evoke on a guttural level. Take Bush sitting stupefied and inept as he learns of the attacks, then lounging slovenly in a golf cart and most damming, as he smugly addresses an audience of affluence as his “base.” They all hit their mark with biting accuracy, but is Moore a shameless manipulator exploiting the Bush blooper reel or is he an ingenious stalwart of leftwing liberalism? Truth be told, he’s a pinch of both, but he’s got to be careful; at times he’s pedagogical and worse, self-aggrandizing. By pursuing Bush with such pit-bull virulence he subverts journalistic objectivity and threatens the overall credibility of the film. And then there are the cheap shots. There’s the guitar riff from Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” when listing Bush as a presidential candidate and during the “seven minutes” at the elementary school Moore adds an unnecessary voice-over as if he’s the voice of Dubya. “Who screwed me?” he says in his scruffy, everyman’s twang. The point he’s trying to make is abstruse and worse, it’s cavil and nearly as smug as Bush as he hangs at the fete’s podium, basking in glow of his “base.”

9/11's most poignant moments come when Moore yields the screen to others. The interview snippets of soldiers in Iraq initially illustrate young, naïve instruments of the Bush administration, but later, some older, more grizzled combatants express their disillusionment with their mission and the reasons for being in Iraq. Moore also scores some comical and wholly affecting moments when he corners several U. S. Congressmen and Senators and solicits them to send their children to the war (Moore previously informs us that the troop base, much like Vietnam, is comprised of those from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and that only one U. S. Legislator has an offspring in the war). And then there’s Lila Lipscomb, mother of a G.I. killed in action, as she emotionally reads her son’s final letter imploring his family to do whatever possible to get Bush out of the Whitehouse. No mater how much Moore leans on Lipscomb to propel his own agenda, her anguish and anger is genuine enough in its own right. Moore obviously sought out Lipscomb because she’s a resident of Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown and a stopping point in nearly all films (his first film, Roger & Me, was about Flint’s economic decimation due to the General Motors shutdowns in the 80s). In developing his cinema verité, Moore’s also taken to interjecting celebrity sound bites to provide offbeat comic relief in his films. In Bowling for Columbine goth rocker, Marylin Manson provided some surprisingly lucid observations about rock lyrics and gun control and in 9/11 a ditzy Britney Spears blindly throws her blondeness behind the president.

9/11 isn’t Moore’s most tightly focused work, it’s more akin to the director’s penned works (Stupid White Men and Dude Where’s My Country) than Columbine or Roger & Me, which pretty much amounts to a sloppy, yet amiable rant against the establishment; and 9/11 plays any angle it can to take Bush’s knees out from under him, be it the Election 2000 controversy, the dubious oil ties between the Saudis and Bush family, Dubya’s inaction during the World Trade Tower attacks or the war in Iraq. Moore simply wants Bush out of the Whitehouse and he vehemently asserts his will on the screen. It’s not the curmudgeonly filmmaker sharpest film, but it is his most provocative.

The big question however, is: will 9/11 have any sway on the 2004 Presidential Election? Obviously Moore and the Weinsteins felt strongly enough to make sure it got into theaters before hand over of Iraq and with time enough to sink in before the election, but if Moore really wanted to incite Bush’s ejection from the Whitehouse, he needed to come up with a smoking gun (the liberal equivalent of WMD) or at least endorse the Bush’s opponent in waiting; yet in the film, neither event occurs. Much of what’s rendered is a regurgitation of what’s known and long been conjectured (the findings by the 9/11 Commission and Senate panel are far more sobering and illuminating) and as far as supporting Bush’s opposition goes, Moore had thrown his support behind General Wesley Clark, the late Democrat entry who disappeared from the field fasted than water on a hot griddle (thankfully Moore’s not liberal, or impractical enough to jump on the Nader train, not yet any way).

Come November, 9/11 won’t tilt the vote to John Kerry, but it has served as smelling salts to the political consciousness of the American public. Conservatives have become cemented in their defense of Bush, the pulse of liberals has quickened (outside my local movie theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts throngs of activists have been peppering 9/11 film goers with various calls to action) and those hung in the middle now have plenty more to chew on. Perhaps the heightened sense will yield a greater voter turnout vote? And when Moore disengages from his quest to demonizing Bush, he raises some salient questions about the weight of an average voter’s voice, the manner in which the state of affairs are executed and ponders if we really live in a democracy, or have become mired in hegemony? In short 9/11 raises a myriad of questions and provides few answers, but when all is said and done, two things will be certain; the film will go on to become most profitable documentary on record and Moore’s whirlwind success, will incite a sudden outbreak of people seizing up their video cameras, digging through archival footage and emblazoning their socio-political passions on celluloid -- Morgan Spurlock’s already got his hands on a hit with Supersize Me. And don’t feel too bad for the folks at Disney, nor assume a trove for Moore and the Weinsteins; Disney when they sold the film, stipulated that 60% of the profits had to be earmarked for a charity of Disney’s picking. Those charities have yet to be selected, so let’s just hope that the people at Mickey and Co. do the right thing and send the cash to the families of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks and died on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The What They Were Thinking Addendum

Actress Natalie Portman (the upcoming Garden State and Star Wars movies) recently offered up a shred of socio-political criticism regarding her alma matter’s diversity policy. In her vent she accused Harvard of not truly embracing diversity because of where the minority students “vacationed.” The implication being that Harvard only admits minorities from privileged backgrounds. Maybe so, but I’m curious to know how Portman arrived at such a deduction. Did she collect logistical data about students racial and socio-economic backgrounds from the admissions office, or, and more likely so, diud she make an off the cuff statement based on her perceived experience at Harvard? Let’s be frank, Portman was a Hollywood actress on a campus that has a Hollywood status of its own and her social circles when partying after hours probably did not include many financial aide students who were probably too busy scrubbing down the mess hall. Harvard offers one a great educational opportunity to all its students and is one of the hardest universities to get into. Ms. Portman should pause and count her blessing, because if she were not Ms. Portman the actress and celebrity, would she have gained access to the Ivy League institution?

-- Tom Meek

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