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Mr. Beaks Vs. FAHRENHEIT 9/11!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Haven’t seen this yet. I’m sure I will this coming weekend or so. I’m already tired of the Michael Moore Publicity Train, though, and I mainly just want it to come out so I can stop hearing about it already. When I talked to Mr. Beaks, a fairly liberal chap, on the phone today about the film, he was still struggling with the review. Looks like he finally whipped it into shape, though. Check this out:

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (w. & d. Michael Moore)

The great triumph of the Bush II Administration has been their ability to secure mass media compliance under the threat of shutting off access to its key players, thereby ensuring, depending on the outlet’s concerns over journalistic credibility, highly favorable coverage, or, at least, the benefit of the doubt with all breaking scandals, of which there have been a steady stream. Compared to the gloves-off treatment accorded Team Clinton’s most glaring missteps either proven (lying under oath, committing adultery, getting a First Dog in the middle of their second term when they already had a First Cat), trumped up (criminal involvement in the Whitewater land deal, the Mark Rich pardon, using now-justified military force as a PR boost during Lewinsky-gate), or still open to legitimate, vociferous debate (Waco, Ruby Ridge and A Boy Named Elian), this current administration has enjoyed remarkably wide latitude to, as my mother is fond of saying, “act the motherfuckin’ fool”. And, be it bolstering bogus rationale for going to war against a boxed-in dictator, handing out wildly favorable contracts to ex-business cronies, or outing an undercover CIA operative as revenge for her husband’s temerarious dissent, they’ve made understandably beneficial use of said freedom, while being backed up by a feared noise machine of loyalists born without the gene responsible for instilling shame (Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, etc.)

There have been, individually, more brilliant politicians than George W. Bush. All of ‘em, probably. But there has never been an administration that operated with such magnificent, single-minded, Teflon ruthlessness. One recalls Matt Hooper describing the Great White in JAWS. They are a perfect political machine. All they do is screw up, spin, and keep screwing up so that the public can’t stay fixed on one misdeed, with the press playing the part of Murray Hamilton, no disrespect to the deceased intended.

As a result, most decent Americans who aren’t as unhealthily preoccupied with the inner workings of the media as, say, Eric Alterman, Atrios, or their entertainment industry incarnation, David Poland, take what is reported by the major print and television outlets, and, most dangerously, talk radio without concerning themselves with a necessary parsing of biased or selective reporting (a real problem when an outlet like FOX NEWS purports to do the parsing for them). Though they should probably be a little savvier in understanding the historical role of bias in news reporting, they can’t be faulted for not having been schooled in the intricacies of corporate journalism. So, when they’ve received continued reinforcement about the speciously alleged, horribly pernicious “liberal media bias” in the form of seemingly credible debate on a show like MSNBC’s HARDBALL (hosted by Chris Matthews, a moderate Democrat often tarred as a liberal), it’s quite understandable that they figure there’s something to it. Meanwhile, such strategic bullying from the most aggressive on the right therefore forces the once reasonably balanced, if inept, press to suddenly be doubly on guard lest they lose access to the President *and* get labeled a liberal troublemaker.

Is it any wonder, then, that once genuinely witty individuals like Al Franken and Michael Moore have suddenly turned in their satiric stripes and become tiresome, practically humorless lefty mirror images of their most annoying conservative counterparts?

(Psst. I’m gonna start reviewing the movie now.)

Unfortunately, it appears that someone’s got to tackle the role of fact checker and playing field leveler, and, what’s more, they’ve got to do it concisely and entertainingly. And if they can’t corral a wide enough audience on television or the radio, then what’s left but to take the brawl to the big screen in the middle of what is traditionally the film industry’s most profitable season?

So seems to have been the methodology behind Michael Moore’s (and the Brothers Weinstein’s) two hour-plus campaign commercial, FAHRENHEIT 9/11, a strenuous effort to debunk lies big and small from this current administration tethered tactlessly to the most tragic and, therefore, most politicized event in the nation’s recent history. Once intended as a portrait of two black sheep from prominent oil families made notorious if not good, Moore has cast a wider net and dredged up muck that will often be yawningly familiar for more vigilant liberal media hounds and expectedly “treasonous” to those without a dictionary. This means the film is *really* targeted at generally apolitical centrists who aren’t, one supposes, avid news watchers, but apparently have no compunction about coughing up $11.00 for a slickly produced piece of leftist propaganda.

In other words, Moore and LGE are going to enjoy a mildly profitable summer preaching solely to the converted with this rushed, padded and, during its smug first hour, massively unfunny election year broadside. As a straightforward filmed essay or cinematic op-ed piece (a definite phrase for this style of filmmaking has yet to be officially coined, but it should because the documentary tent is getting awfully crowded), Moore’s film is an unfocused, murkily reasoned cherry bomb in the Oval Office toilet that will leave a flood of damning accusations easily mopped up by the President’s most loyal custodians. But, with the right’s barking dominance of the airwaves, it’s a necessarily mean-spirited salvo in the partisan national discourse that shows no signs of abating in its unprecedented nastiness. That it will also spawn a series of conservative answer films (hell, Barry McGuire’s 1960’s protest hit “Eve of Destruction” was countered by the insipid “Dawn of Correction”) is a prospect that should send a chill through critics nationwide.

Tangent Warning!

(Meanwhile, conservative billionaire Philip Anschultz just bankrolled a non-aggressive, positively reviewed piece of family-friendly entertainment with AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and it received little in the way of promotion from the decency brigade on the right, as it was presumably two nails and a crown of thorns short of overbearing Christian proselytizing. Where was the love?)

Tangent Completed.

Now, about that movie. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 opens with a lengthy prologue in which Moore recaps the disputed 2000 election and Bush’s leisurely first eight months in office (42% of which, THE WASHINGTON POST claims, was spent on vacation). Lost amid the flurry of indignations listed by Moore is the alleged disenfranchisement of minority Florida voters, an issue that never received a satisfactory government investigation (a joke of a panel was headed up by far right legal professor and gun nut John Lott, a man once caught posing as a admiring former student to defend himself online, but Moore elides this sad fact). Like many of the potential improprieties mentioned in the film, one wishes Moore – or, better yet, someone else – had seized on this rather than score lazy lay-ups with easy assists from the public record, but, while intriguing, it’s also a story unlikely to throw open Harvey’s vault to the tune of $6 million.

Up until the opening credits, FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is merely a barrage of glancing blows, but, once they conclude, the film delves into sheer tastelessness with a black screen accompanied by a frighteningly realistic sound cue meant to recreate the aural fury of two jets slamming into the World Trade Center. Impossible to square with the generally bouncy tone of the preceding ten minutes, this is an unexpected and wholly inappropriate blindside that belongs in a more sober assessment of this film and this President. The best that can be said is that Moore does his best to keep a straight face throughout the meat of his case against Bush’s strange inaction in the surreally elongated moments after being alerted that the country is “under attack”, but, as he attempts to figure out what the President was thinking as he sat stone-faced in front of a gaggle of grade school children, the film’s snarky tone reasserts itself.

From here, Moore engages in his most sustained attack on Bush’s ethics, detailing his spotty service in the Air National Guard, where the future oilman first linked up with James Bath, who would invest in Bush’s Arbusto energy company and, later in life, become financial adviser to a member of the bin Laden family (which, Moore never notes, is large enough that merely being connected to a single member doesn’t necessarily put them in league with Osama). Out of this, and other sundry Saudi connections that are unavoidable in the upper echelon of the oil industry, Moore attempts to allege some kind of wrongdoing or impropriety in the shuttling of prominent bin Ladens out of the country when all flights were grounded in two days following 9/11. Something is certainly amiss here (though a few of those flights may have been after the ban), but what it is Moore can’t say. After a sledgehammer gag involving a protracted sequence from the original DRAGNET (a show that hasn’t been a fertile comedic reference since the name Pep Streebeck entered the pop cultural lexicon), Moore brings on an ex-FBI agent to make the obvious point that one would have preferred to thoroughly question these family members before they left the country, but, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem likely that they possessed any valuable information. Even recent whistleblower and Bush Administration Enemy #1 Richard Clarke has downplayed the seriousness of this favorable treatment.

Bereft of a smoking gun that figuratively puts Bush in a room with Osama, Moore switches tactics, and returns to America’s culture of fear; thus, building on his quasi-thesis from BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. The film briefly comes to satiric life, showing the inventor of something called the “Executive Chute” (a parachute for those trapped in imperiled skyscrapers) making an ass out of himself on THE TODAY SHOW, but Moore again lands on shaky ground when he suggests, as many have, that the Terror Threat Level is an instrument through which the Bush Administration instills fear in order to weather mounting scandal or sinking approval ratings. Given their history of bad behavior, this certainly isn’t a ridiculous notion, but it’s also as blindly theoretical a charge as conservative pundits claiming Clinton used the dual air strikes on Al Qaeda targets as a means to take the heat off of his looming impeachment (the timing of these attacks were recently justified by the non-partisan 9/11 committee). Taking into account the heavily corporate tenor of this administration, it’s most likely that rising the threat level is classic “cover your ass” activity meant to lessen the political fallout should Al Qaeda strike again. (Now, the direness with which CNN, MSNBC, FOX NEWS et. al. report these terrorist temperature shifts has *everything* to do with instilling fear. What surer way to keep folks glued to their set?)

Eventually, bin Laden falls away from Moore’s gaze as he did the media’s and, it would seem, Bush’s, as the filmmaker segues into the most effective portion of his film, the War in Iraq. From the conflict’s disingenuous build-up to the cowing of congressional Democrats to the sloppily planned invasion, and, finally, to a heartbreakingly intimate glimpse of the human toll, Moore unleashes an incendiary condemnation of Bush’s arrogant, self-serving motives for putting the country’s soldiers at risk. Those who abhor the sight of American officers behaving badly or inhumanely will go apoplectic here, as Moore shows them giddily describing the rush of combat, and delighting in the humiliation of their enemy. What he also captures, though, is an overriding despair, anger and aimlessness; the product of men and women fighting a war with an unsure goal.

This confusion extends to the home front, where Moore spends time with the sensitive Flint, Michigan mother of a fallen combatant. Though this is not the first child she has sent to war (her daughter fought in the Gulf War), this is the first to have not returned, and the pain is acute due to her son expressing in his last letter home that he hated what he viewed as a pointless war and despised Bush for sending him there. It’s a shame that Moore’s film is so top-heavily self-satisfied, because here is a universally affecting portrait of a woman who went from hating the war protestors to understanding that it wasn’t her children they inveighed against, but the unjustness of the cause for which they fought. This chapter of the film culminates in a truly galling moment of sadly typical “dittohead” idiocy, when, on a trip to the White House, this good woman is verbally assaulted by what appears to be a pro-war protester, who charges that Moore is staging a moment, and that she didn’t really lose a son. No doubt, this misguided soul was operating on some bit of misinformation floated by one of Moore’s opponents on the right, but the lack of contrition expressed when it turns out this woman’s pain is for real is absolutely maddening.

So, too, is Moore’s film and his agitprop approach, which, sadly, the country’s inflamed discourse desperately needs to maintain its bilious equilibrium. Hurrah. As a spitballing of ideas that bear closer examination, FAHRENHEIT 9/11 may yet prove useful as an inspiration to impressionable young documentarians, but this is no election swinging coup de grace. Moore’s pre-Cannes decision to pedal lies regarding Disney’s refusal to distribute his film took care of that. He’s forever destroyed his credibility in the way his strident, but admirable, Oscar night speech could not. He’s one of “them”, now; one of those agitating hucksters who value visibility over trying to effect real change. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a cottage industry out of dissent, but twisting the truth to sex up one’s product puts Moore uncomfortably in league with his adversaries.

Still, for all the hatred and further divisiveness it’s likely to incite, FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is absolutely the film America deserves in 2004. It’s going to be a great summer.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Nicely done, Beaks. So far, I haven’t read a lot of reviews that have actually dealt with the movie instead of the hype around it, so it was nice to see.

"Moriarty" out.

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