Tuesday, July 06, 2004

More on Moore

If you want to KNOW how George W Bush and his Administration used 9/11 to take an entire nation to the cleaners, read The Lies of George W Bush (David Corn), Big Lies (Joe Conason), Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Al Franken), Lost Liberties (Cynthia Brown), The Bush Dyslexicon (Mark Crispin Miller), Weapons of Mass Deception (Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber), Blinded by The Right (David Brock), Bushwhacked (Molly Ivins), The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Greg Pallast)…

..or, to cut a long list short, any of about 30 books flying off the non-fiction shelves of your neighboring bookstore.

Any and all of them cite chapter and verse to expose, in pitiless detail, the many sins of omission and commission of the Bush regime.

But if you want the message of the Administration’s – and the President’s – activities to hit you with the force of a Van Damme kick to the solar plexus, watch Fahrenheit 9/11, the Michael Moore documentary that is still standing room only in theatres across the US.

Many people are doing just that. On July 4, the day America celebrated its many freedoms, the documentary was sold out for all but one of the six evening screenings at the 34th Street Loew’s – where it outdid even Spiderman 2.

It is not what Moore says – it’s all been said before, and better, in print by the likes of Ivins and Corn and Conason and Pallast and their ilk; it is the brilliant selection, and sequencing, of images that really chill you.

He kicks off with the Florida hijack of Election 2000. Tellingly, station after TV station announces Florida – and, effectively, the election – to Gore. And then Fox comes up with its own announcement – Florida for Bush, says the ‘fair and balanced channel’ where, at the time, the newsroom was being headed by a cousin of George W himself.

That is a mere prelude to what follows.

Apparently, in the US, an election can be debated, and its validity discussed, in the combined session of Congress and Senate provided the request is made in writing, and one Congressman and one Senator sign.

Moore keeps his camera running as, one after another, ten Congressmen rise to challenge Bush’s election. In each case, the man presiding over the joint session gavels the member down, because (s)he does not have the signature of a Senator.

Not. One. Senator. Signed.

The guy presiding over the sitting in question is referred to as ‘Mr President’ – leading to some unintended irony, as Congressman after Congressman stood up and said ‘Mr President, I rise to challenge…’

The man they were addressing as Mr President? The man who used his gavel to hammer them back down? Al Gore – the man whose election as President of the US was hijacked by Bush.

That is followed by another image no one saw at the time. On inaugural day, the Bush cavalcade rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Traditionally, the newly elected president makes the last part of his journey to the White House by foot.

On that day, though, thousands of protestors – some holding up placards that read Hail To The Thief – lined that route, as the cavalcade slowed, they pelted the presidential limo with eggs.

Security nixes the traditional walk; the cavalcade speeds up and races away from the mass protest.

The most devastating passage in the film is when Bush, who was reading My Pet Goat to a classroom of Florida children, is notified of the second attack on the World Trade Center. In a scene that directly contradicts Bush’s self-image of a decisive war time leader, the president sits in seeming shock, for seven long minutes, before his aides come in again to remind him that pressing concerns await.

The rest of the documentary hits predictable nerve points. The Bush family’s ties with Saudi Arabia are emphasized; the famous flight out of the US on September 13, carrying various members of the Bin Laden family, are highlighted (“In any murder investigation, speaking to the relatives of the suspect is common practice, so how come no one in the US got to speak to the Bin Laden relatives?” asks an FBI agent); there is an almost surreal scene of Bush, three days after 9/11, having an intimate one on one dinner with Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar (“No Iraqi hurt any US citizen; 15 of the 19 hijackers are Saudi nationals, so who does Bush chose to attack, and who does he have dinner with?” asks Moore).

Bush’s military record is exhumed, more connections made with the Saudis; the subtext of it all is, did the president war on Iraq at the behest of his friends?.

Montages of the destruction in Iraq; of civilians maimed and killed are juxtaposed with scenes of US soldiers in extreme agony; amputees complaining about Bush's proposed cuts of military salaries even as he sent them into a war they all said they hated.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

What the documentary does above all else is highlight Moore’s transition from over the top rabble-rouser to skilled documentary maker, from agent provocateur to thinking political commentator. It also reveals a growing polish to Moore’s art – his selection and arrangement of images is impeccable, their cumulative impact devastating.

There is none of the stretching of facts that marred his earlier, Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine; here, almost as if conscious that any factual slip will help the Republican spin machine to discredit the entire exercise, he is cautious to never reach for what he cannot prove.

Also noticeable is the way –- in the fashion of a slick crime thriller – Moore ratchets up the tension, allows the film to get progressively bleaker as it goes along.

The last part almost entirely centers around Lila Lipscomb, from Moore's hometown Flint, Michigan, as she talks of her daughter and son who are both part of the US military… the scenes getting grimmer by the frame till the climactic moment when she reads a letter from her son, serving in Iraq, that talks of the horrors of war and urges his family back home to work for Bush’s defeat.

The letter was written two days before the son in question died in action – a fact that makes the letter a literal knife in the gut.

A full house at Loew’s, July 4, laughed in places (Bush, shortly before addressing the nation for the first time after 9/11, practicing the various expressions he intends to use; Paul Wolfowitz using his own spit to slick down his hair before facing the cameras; Bush delivering an ultimatum to terrorists, then telling the assembled press “Now watch this drive!”); it groaned when images of dozens of flag draped coffins and soldiers with limbs missing drove home the horror of this unnecessary war; it greeted the end of the film with a standing ovation.

So does it work? That’s the thing with such films – how do you figure out if the message got home? Applause means nothing, in context, unless that applause signifies agreement with the message of the film – and that agreement can only be quantified in November this year, when the president goes up for re-election.

One thing for sure, though – Moore with this film upstages the John Kerry campaign without even trying.

Consider this: Kerry, at last count, is estimated to have spent over $30-40 million on anti-Bush ads and other campaign material, without doing noticeable damage. (Come to think of it, I’ve only seen one such ad so far, and that was a pretty weak effort).

Against that, Moore makes a $6 million film that people are paying to see; that houseful audiences are cheering to the rafters. And he is actually making money while doing the Democrats’ work for them -- $23 million in its opening week; an estimated $20 million on the July 4 weekend alone and still going strong.

One other puzzling aspect of the film, as you watch it, is – how come we didn’t see any of this before? How come no news channel showed the strange reluctance of Senators – even Democratic ones – to challenge an election that had been robbed from under their noses? How come no one saw images of Bush’s limo being pelted with eggs? How come no one saw Bush, a second after threatening terrorists with imminent destruction, flippantly asks reporters to check out his golf drive? How come no one saw images of a president paralyzed, reading from a children’s book for long minutes after being told America was under attack?

I found the answer in an Entertainment Weekly interview with Moore. The interviewer asked Moore that very question. It’s all there, the film-maker said in response – only, no channel had the guts, or the commitment to news, to show it. In fact, said Moore, Bush has gotten so used to the knowledge that networks will self-censor themselves, that they will never show anything anti-Bush, that he doesn’t really care to keep his guard up when cameras are running in the vicinity.

That statement – taken in context with the images they relate to – make this film a two-birds-one-shot exercise: Not only does the film show Bush as anything but the fearless wartime president his party machine seeks to portray, it also shows how the media here – especially the television media – panders to that image, and carefully blacks out anything that might contradict it.