Written, directed, and starring Michael Moore (and a cast ranging from luminaries in Washington to plain folks in Flint, Michigan)
Is there really anything new to be said about this blockbuster mockumentary? The author of Fahrenheit 451, the cautionary novel describing the temperature at which books burn, has expressed anger toward Moore for expropriating his title—what a difference three integers make.
Let us be very clear: This film is accurate propaganda that makes no bones about being “fair and balanced.” Like the motto from the Fox network, which copyrighted the phrase, but does not live up to it, fairness and balance has no place in partisan politics or Michael Moore's propaganda.
He is obvious about his sentiments about both George W. Bush and the war in Iraq—he's against them. Those already convinced from either side may find little new in the movie, but it is skillfully put together, with some previously unseen footage and first-person accounts and confrontations that have become trademarks of Moore's brand of attack cinema.
A return to the 2000 election consumes the early parts of the film. The focus on the uncertainty and the unfairness sets the tone for the true believers; the news for me was that the certifying process of the election required a vote of then-joint Houses of Congress.
Moore parades African American Congresspeople for the most part, and mostly women, to reveal that a complaint by an elected official requires a written document and a signature of a member of the senate. After the narrow election, the hanging chad events, and the still boiling debate for some about Florida's count and awarding of its electoral votes and then the finality of the closely divided Supreme Court, I had never heard this before. This was news to me, or was it theater?
The first eight months of the Bush administration are portrayed as languorous days and frank vacations. The president uncomfortably makes the point that you do not need to be in Washington to get the job done, and grants interviews before teeing off on the golf course or being filmed clearing brush on the ranch.
We are spared visuals of American flight 10 and United flight 175 slamming into the World Trade Center on that fateful day, but we hear the impact and see the reactions by witnessing people on the street. Moore is a master of capturing the man on the street, and putting his words into headlines and movies.
Somehow he got the home video from the teacher in the Florida classroom where President Bush was to read My Pet Goat to elementary school students on what started as a bright and clear September morn. Moore edits the tape to show the president reading after the plane crashed into the North Tower, but catches the fateful moment of Andrew Card delivering the news of the United 175 flight accelerating into the South Tower in a fiery collision.
The president's face expresses befuddlement. Is it fair to capture him looking so un-presidential in this unscripted moment of national tragedy? Moore's voiceover intones his point of view that he wonders about linkage between the Bush family and the Saudis. The connections are detailed in the book House of Bush, House of Saud, but the assigning of his thoughts at this fateful moment clearly is unfair and unbalanced with no opportunity to check the veracity of the speculation, or a Cheney, Rove, Ashcroft, or Rice interpretation to what he was really thinking.
The connection with oil, Prince Bandar, the bin Ladens, and the Taliban are all looped into the fabric of the plot. The issue of connection also stirs into the stew the Bush Alabama National Air Guard record. Another guardsman's name is revealed, but it was blacked out on official Bush-released versions. Moore has a Freedom of Information document that shows the actual name—a name later linked to the bin Laden construction firm and Saudi oil deals in failed Bush ventures in Texas.
Moore holds interviews across from the Saudi Embassy, which is nestled between the Watergate Condominium and the Kennedy Center, revealing that the Secret Service guards the Saudi Embassy closely, and that the Saudis are responsible for $14 billion investments in the US, and about 6% of the nation's economy.
The links are presented as fact, no opportunity to balance. This is partisan and one-sided and not serious documentary, but fuels the innuendo about personal or Bush family gains over national interest.
Was President Bush thinking about this while reading My Pet Goat, or was he genuinely caught off guard and without a clue as to what to do?
Those immediate hours and days after the attack were filled with national dread and national horror, but the nation was transiently united, and even the hopelessly partisan Congressional bodies could agree to sing “America the Beautiful” without a sour note form either side.
Return to Flint
Moore returns to Flint for visceral impact. He interviews Lila Lipscomb, who is a husky, matronly Michigan Everywoman. Flint has been economically depressed and the epicenter of Moore's Roger and Me expose about General Motors plant closures.
Michigan is one of the battleground states for the upcoming election, and the movie has been heavily attended in the southeastern portion of the state. Moore informs us that Flint's children and current habitués are desperate and have few choices. The camera spans lower class neighborhoods and someone says that things are just as bad here as in Iraq.
One no-longer-seeking-employment chap asserts that President Bush knows about the problems because he e-mailed him about it. Lila's testimony is that the military is a good option for Flint youth. Her daughter served in the first Iraq war, and she dutifully flies the flag each day. She asserts that this is the only choice for Flint youth with no prospect of college or better jobs.
The marine recruiters know which is “the right” mall in which to fish for recruits and which mall is in “better off” Genesee County. Is this Moore stirring class warfare or an accurate description of how we populate the ranks in times of war?
The Marines plot which prospects to talk to and offer enticing connections—one hip-hop hero is a former marine, a genuine hook to a rap-wannabe potential recruit.
Another kid played basketball in a Flint high school and is assured that there is an athletic opportunity in the marines for him. No one mentions the prospect of loss of life or limb.
Parallel to Recruitment for Clinical Trials
I was struck by the parallel to recruitment for clinical trials. We are obliged to present alternative, potential benefits and risks. The armed forces are allowed to forego explaining the risk, which seems less than ethical to me.
The film offers graphic and heartrending episodes of grieving Iraqis—a father tossing a dead child into a truck littered with other dead, an angry woman shaking her fist to Allah, a small boy with his carpal tendons exposed by an explosive, and a dead boy being dragged off with soiled trousers.
We visit Walter Reade's wards where double amputees are being rehabilitated and post-traumatic stress affected veterans tug long draws on cigarettes.
War carnage is never pretty; collateral damage converts all but those most gung ho in second lines and reserves, or safely employed in professions, family businesses, or farms.
Moore makes his point starkly. The president wisely shuns funerals and bans photos of flag-draped coffins.
We learn that Lila's son has fallen in a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq. While we always hear of the bereavement officer driving up in a plain government car, she describes instead a sanitary phone call. Lila is of course bereft, sobbingly reading her son's final letter.
She focuses her anger on the White House and on President Bush, who her slain son derides in his last letter home. She goes to Washington and finds herself in Lafayette Park across from the White House. A protester enlists her support and she confides that she has lost her son.
An equally partisan woman storms up announcing that “this is all staged.” When Lila loudly tells her that her son was killed in Iraq, dead in combat, the president's supporter, someone who clearly and blindly supports the war cannot find it in herself to apologize or even commiserate. She charges on: “Other kids have died too.”
My favorite part of the film was the episode where Moore finds an Iraq war veteran, a young and soon to be in trouble handsome African American marine, who articulates his reluctance and unwillingness to return to duty in Iraq on “moral grounds.” With his uniformed brace-backed accomplice, Moore attempts to solicit support on the steps of Capitol Hill from bustling Congressmen.
Rep. Tanner of Tennessee is caught on tape trying to preserve civility. He tries to commiserate as a former Navy man himself. When Moore suggests that he should sign a petition and support a bill to have congressional sons and daughters sent to Iraq before others, the look on his face was indeed worth the price of the ticket.
Other more imperious term-limited representatives bristled by, saving face but leaving a slimy slug-like trail of arrogance by avoiding the gnome-like Moore's spiderlike trap.
Will Convert Only a Few
This movie will convert a few, but not many. Most people have made up their minds. Moore's diatribe is truthful, but its one-sidedness will offend some, but galvanize others.
Roger has already won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but will he win over many wavering voters with his one-sided polemic? I doubt it.
The fact that he won a French award will be enough to set the xenophobic, foreign loathing, French-hating faction into apoplexy.
The revelations and the photojournalism are stark, and the impact deeply visceral. You have to admire his effort and craft.
In the end you wish the Office for Human Subject Protection guidelines would apply to military recruitment, and you feel for the anguish of Ms. Lipscomb and her family over the loss of her beloved son, and all our lost beloved countrymen and innocent Iraqis that have died in this region.