The Shlemiel As Muckraker
A muckraking shlemiel provides a cinematic case for US regime change. But "Fahrenheit 9/11" goes beyond the predictable anti-Bush screed; it delves into the nature of empire. Like Michael Moore's earlier documentaries, "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine," the new film treats contemporary class conflict at home and abroad. Its heroes, confused working class Americans, try to behave morally in the face of imperial evil.
Moore's empathetic "documentary" characters evolve as the result of a traumatic social act: in "Roger," General Motors closes eleven auto plants in Flint, Michigan, which brings consciousness or depression to those who lose jobs, stability, marriages; the high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado inspire two of permanently disabled Columbine students to confront the hidden hand behind gun violence; in "Fahrenheit," Moore introduces Lila Lipscomb, a flag waving, conservative Democrat whose life personifies the bumper sticker line, "Bush Lied, My Son Died."
Dead and wounded soldiers, victims of the Bushies' lies in Iraq, emerge as foreign policy equivalents of the victims of General Motors' irresponsibility in Michigan. Roger, the first name of GM CEO Roger Smith, offers empty euphemisms and platitudes to justify his profit seeking.
Using the pretext of reaching Roger, so the CEO can witness the results of his decision on the community, Moore returns to his hometown, Flint, to explore the lives of the newly unemployed coping with job loss and escalating crime--provoked by the obliteration of the city's infrastructure. A GM lobbyist matter-of-factly explains that Smith had to move the plants to Mexico because it was "cost effective" -- low wages and unenforceable labor and environmental standards. Hey, corporations can't afford sentimentality. Remember, GM's obligation to stockholders outstrips any duties the corporation might have toward large communities! And Roger got a multi million dollar raise for making the move!
"Bowling" targets another major corporation, Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer located, ironically, near Columbine High. Lockheed provided the Pentagon with lethal weapons while serving as Littleton's biggest employer. Homicidal violence in American life, the film suggests, parallels US actions abroad. Guns, Moore shows, are equally accessible in peaceful Canada, which does not share either the imperial institutions or the cruel racial past - maintained by violence.
In "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore communicates a sense of urgency as he punctures the aura of "smoke 'em out" George as well as the carefully crafted "protect America" patina that the military has elaborated as it institutionalized and inflated itself in the post World War II decades. His footage on Iraq recalls what the networks aired during the Vietnam War - and now seem frightened to exhibit: a US killing machine and lots of gruesome shots of dead and wounded GIs. "Fahrenheit" shows troops in Iraq preparing to "kill the enemy" by listening to lyrics screaming, "Burn, motherfucker."
And it shows the faces of the young victims, dead and wounded who enlisted, the poor and minority men and women who comprise the lower ranks of the armed forces. The "support our troops" slogan rings hollow when they return home without assistance for their needs in education, health care or employment. The film exposes Bush's priorities: young people join the army because it's the only way to pay for college - like Lila Lipscomb's son.
In Iraq, the young soldiers, presumably like Lila's son, a good natured and moral person, act like brutes and occupiers - in the name of doing their duty, following orders, liberating Iraq. These young people don't necessarily seek the military; the military looks for them. Moore follows two recruiters cynically pitching in "poor shopping areas," with a ubiquitous Wal-Mart, trying to enlist poor black youths for lethal combat - much as they do in high schools. These well-groomed, uniformed hucksters sell professional killing as "career opportunities." What really happens to those who fight becomes clear when the camera enters a ward in the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
The wounded don't make the evening news, but they stoically try to manage without arms, legs or eyes. In Iraq, images flash of innocent dead and wounded civilians-- equally absent from TV news.
"Fahrenheit" demands that people understand the behavior of Bush as President and his criminally fraudulent case for the Iraqi invasion in order to throw him out of office in November. Moore implies a sinister connection between the Bush and Saudi royal families to an extent that actually colored the Administration's response to 9/11.
The media reported, without concluding, the mysterious exodus of Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, immediately following the dastardly September deeds. Moore gets a former FBI agent to describe such behavior as downright irresponsible. The FBI knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and that bin Laden was the key suspect. Obviously, members of his family, however innocent, would surely have known something that could have helped find the chief conspirator. Using juxtaposition of images with mood inducing music to mold emotions, Moore maintains the audience. All films employ emotional manipulation, not book logic, to make their point. Imagine Moore trying to talk about the significance of the neo-con Project for a New American Century that prioritized Iraqi regime change. Yawn!
"Fahrenheit" begins by presenting the President as a privileged jerk who set a record for vacation taking, a man both absent-minded and downright absent. "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you." Then, Bush turns and strokes a golf ball: "Now watch this drive."
The persona that White House spinners fed the media after 9/11 was of Bush as the fearless commander. In contrast, Moore shows Bush after receiving news of the 9/11 attacks as dazed and confused. The President looks lost while trying to follow the story line of "My Pet Goat," which he was reading to second grade Florida students. Seven minutes tick by as the Chief executive holds the oversized picture book. Chaos, death and destruction envelope lower Manhattan while a hijacking pilot of the third plane aims for the Pentagon.
Moore's quiet but tendentious narration leads the public to conclusions. He clearly does not rely on the audience's own intelligence. Like Hollywood producers, Moore seems to assume that mainstream America, battered by mass media's shotgun pellets of trivia, has become befuddled.
In the film, Moore skewers the media for their absence and their toadying. Some networks that dropped their investigative ball after 9/11 now question facts and motives behind "Fahrenheit." On CBS' "The Early Show" (June 25, 2004), Hannah Storm piously intoned: "the one thing that journalists try to do is to present both sides of the story, and it could be argued that you did not do that in this movie."
"My side," Moore responded, "the side of millions of Americans, rarely gets told. Why don't you ask them [the Administration] the hard questions?" Storm had no answer.
"Fahrenheit's" message and its surrounding publicity, has begun to resonate. At a Covina, California local hair salon, where chatting usually involves the latest diet trends, love lives of celebrities, or the unfulfilling sex lives of hair stylists and clients alike, the talk has turned to Bush and his failings.
At the AMC theater in Covina and the Edwards in West Covina, a mix of Latinos, Arabs, Chinese and Caucasians applauded at the end. In one Oakland, California theater, the owner announced he would not enforce the R rating. Teenagers flocked to see the film.
Did Moore convince them that the Bush family colluded with the corrupt Saudi monarchy and the bin Laden family? Did the shots of Bushies shaking hands with Crown Prince Abdullah establish guilt by association? The close ups of dark-skinned Saudi princes juxtaposed with a public beheading in Saudi Arabia certainly reinforce the Hollywood black hat image. The Saudi focus also lets Moore off the hook on the more politically cantankerous subject of Israel, a missing ingredient in the "Fahrenheit" script.
But he does not compromise on the issue of class. Indeed, he screams about the failure of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" to reach the pockets of the jobless and uninsured poor. The real Bush, with his characteristic shit-eating grin, extols the white tie set at a fundraising dinner. "Here we have the 'haves' and the 'have-mores,'" he quips. "Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." Yes, Bush is the progeny of this parasitic class and from them he derives his destructive "vision" of power. Moore appears in his documentaries as the polar opposite of Bush, obese and unshaven-or is that a beard? This non-celebrity needs a tailor. Feigning innocence and sometimes righteousness, this self-proclaimed member of the oppressed class has made Time magazine's cover. This shameless self-promoter - is there any other way to generate publicity?--has also made mass box office hits on the core issues of capitalism: class war, racism, violence - the ingredients of empire.
At a time when poor and minorities have no clear political representation, Michael Moore emerges - in all his imperfections - to articulate their grievances and steer them toward meaningful politics.
Landau's new book is THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE REPLACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND. Farrah Hassen was the associate producer of SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE. www.saullandau.net