In its first weekend of wide release, Fahrenheit 9/11 took in $21.8 million on just 868 screens, making it the highest-grossing documentary opening in history. The movie did equally well in red and blue states where a not-so-silent civil war is raging over America’s representation under the Bushies. While U.S. citizens fret over a terrorist attack before the election and tamper-easy Diebold voting machines, arguments rage about Donald Rumsfeld’s refusal to step down after Abu Grahib and Vice President Dick Cheney loses his mind in Congress.
Now that it’s clear that Fox News will not keep audiences away from Fahrenheit 9/11, the question is, Will conservative media recognize its defeat in trying to impugn director Michael Moore and shift the dialogue back to the issues he raises?
A populist filmmaker, Moore engages in a kind of independent journalism that raises crucial questions with an air of simplicity and honest curiosity. But the damning answers to some of his direct queries demand action. When Moore declares that no member of Congress had even read The PATRIOT Act before voting on it, you’ve got to wonder when the American public will serve our negligent Congress with pink slips.
However, the blind passing of the PATRIOT Act is but one in a laundry list of offenses that Moore exposes. His movie keys into the lies that we’ve been fed since Bush and his cronies illegally seized power. The best part is that Moore is a sincere and articulate Everyman to whom people around the world listen and respond enthusiastically. That’s more than can be said of George W. Bush.
The following interview was conducted at the recent Cannes Film Festival where Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or.
Cole Smithey: What in this movie do you think will be shocking to the public, and what of that would be threatening to the U.S. government?
Michael Moore: Well, what’s going to be shocking to most Americans who see this film is Bush’s military records that were blacked out by someone at the White House. I don’t think people have heard American soldiers in the field talk the way they talk in this film of their disillusionment, of their despair, of their questioning what’s going on. Those were brave words to say to a camera. We have not seen that on the evening news. We’ve not seen the suffering that the war has caused—from those who’ve been maimed and paralyzed to the families back home who’ve lost loved ones. How often have we heard their voices? Every step along the way in this movie will be a revelation in terms of how this lie was perpetrated upon them.
The good thing about Americans is once they’re given the information, they act accordingly, and they act from a good place. The hard part is getting through with the information. If the freelancers I was using were able to find what they found in Iraq, with our limited resources, you have to question why haven’t we seen this? You see in the movie the first footage of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees. And this occurred in the field, outside the prison walls. That is disgraceful, that it would take as long as it’s taken, and for me to come along with stringers and freelancers to be able to bring this to the American people. The American people do not like things being kept from them, and I think what this film is going to do is be like a mystery unraveling.
Do you think the coalition should pull out of Iraq?
Of course the [chuckling] “Coalition of the Willing” needs to de-will themselves, and the United States must remove itself from the situation. We need to find a better solution with people who the Iraqis want there, and who will help the Iraqis rebuild their country—that is not the United States of America.
George Bush accused the U.S. troops who abused the Iraqi detainees of a “failure of character.” What do you think are the failures of George Bush’s character?
Bush’s comment about the failure of the U.S. troops is another example of how George W. Bush does not support our troops. George W. Bush and his ilk actually despise our troops. Only someone who despises our young people, who have offered to serve and protect our country and give up their lives if necessary—to send them to war based on a lie is the worst violation of trust you can have, and the worst way to treat our troops. He is against our troops. He has put them in harm’s way for no good reason other than to line the pockets of his friends and benefactors.
The lack of character begins with him and Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and the fish rots from the head down. Whatever’s going on in Iraq, in terms of this prison abuse and the things you see in the film, starts with sending them over there based on a lie. Immoral behavior begets immoral behavior. This is not some noble mission to free the country, to free people, to prevent a holocaust. This was a disgusting effort on their part, and all we can say is thank God that they got caught as early as they did. If you remember with Vietnam, it took years before the lie was revealed. This has just taken months. So, I’m somewhat optimistic that we can find a way out of this.
In your movie, you criticize the way the American public is manipulated with fear by the media. How do you manipulate your images?
We do a de-manipulation of the images. The media in America provides a manipulation. During the Bush years they put on a filter and they only allow the American people to see what they think will keep the waters calm. So night after night on the evening news you’ll get maybe five seconds of George W. Bush where it sounds like he makes sense. In my film, I show the 20 seconds on either side of the five seconds where he clearly is totally discombobulated. In my film, I take the filter off, and you see it raw and uncensored and the way it really is. It’s both hilarious and frightening.
Are you afraid of being manipulated?
When you come from the working class, you’ve got a pretty good bullshit detector. I come from a factory town, my dad worked in a factory, and there’s a total lack of pretension—everything is the way that it is. Anybody who tries to pretend to be something else is immediately seen for who and what they are. That’s a good thing about growing up that way, and I haven’t lost that. And I hope I always maintain that sense of always having a healthy disrespect for authority and always believing, as a great American journalist once said, “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” If we had more journalists who started with that premise, that governments must prove everything that they’re saying, then maybe we’d get to more of the truth.
How do you get the clips of these uncensored moments that belong to networks?
We spend a lot of time digging in their archives. Another way we do it is there are people who work in media who don’t like the way the media is censored. So there’ll be a cameraman over here or a sound guy over there who knows that I would like to see something and will send it to me. We have a network of people who believe that the public should be given all the truth. I can’t reveal everything in terms of how we do this, but we’re able to get it out there to the people. I shouldn’t really have to do this in a free country where there should be open information and you should hear all the different voices. It shouldn’t take a guy like me to provide the people with the things that you’re not seeing. But as long as that’s the case, I’m going to take you to a place that you haven’t been before during the four years of the Bush Administration.
How were you able to get the war footage from Iraq?
I had a number of freelancers that I was working with, both people that I was able to have go to Iraq and others we discovered once they were in Iraq—some were embedded, some weren’t. The footage of the Iraqi detainees was from a journalist who was embedded with the troops.
How do you think the White House has tried to prevent your film from being made and released?
I only know what I was told by my agent. We had a signed deal with Icon. We were just starting the movie and I got a call from my agent saying that he just got a call from a person at Icon asking for a way to get out of the deal, even though there was no way they could renege on it. They asked if there was any way we could get someone else to take over the deal because they received a call from “top Republicans,” people connected to the White House, who essentially wanted to convey the message to Mr. Gibson [Mel Gibson, who runs Icon Films—Ed.], “Don’t expect anymore invitations to the White House if they’re going to be behind this film.” That’s all I know. I don’t know who made the calls, but we had this deal—there was a big thing in Variety about the deal—then suddenly, weeks later the deal didn’t exist. Fortunately, Miramax immediately took over the deal and said they would make the film.
Since the agenda of your film seems to be to influence the outcome of the election in November, to what extent do you think a movie can accomplish that goal?
When I make any movie, it’s to make something that I would want to go see on a Friday night if I were going to a movie. That’s always the foremost thought in my mind: How can we make something that will be enjoyable and entertaining, that people will want to take their date or their spouse to the theater and eat popcorn, have a great time, laugh, cry, think, and leave the theater to talk about it later? Those are always my primary motivations, and that is the motivation behind making this film.
I wanted to say something about the times in which we live, in post 9/11 America—how we got to where we’re at, what’s happened to us as a people—and have a good time doing it. I also think it’s important to laugh during times like these and that’s why this film, like my other films, has a good amount of humor in it. This time I was the straight man—Bush wrote the funniest lines, so what am I going to do when George Bush files a grievance with the Writer’s Guild wanting some sort of screen credit? In terms of “Will it influence the election?” I hope it influences people just to leave the theater and become good citizens—whatever that means. I’ll leave it to other people to decide what impact it will have on the election.
Fahrenheit 9/11 pulls no punches in burning Bush
By Kent Williams
Let’s start by getting the name-calling out of the way: Michael Moore is a political gadfly, a provocateur, a firebrand, a rabble-rouser, a muckraker, a satirist, a populist, an entertainer and a Big Fat Stupid White Man, that last epithet courtesy of a book about Moore that’s just been published. As for Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s headline-grabbing documentary about the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, it’s a screed, a diatribe, a polemic, a comedic hatchet job that, according to London’s Guardian newspaper, got a thumb’s-up from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group. Except for the fact that he never quite gets around to asking George Bush whether it’s true that he beats his wife, Moore doesn’t even pretend to play fair. On the contrary, he’s out to behead a king with every sharp tool at his disposal. And if you have a problem with that…well, then get in line, because lots of people, from both sides of the political aisle, have a problem with it. Right-leaning leftie Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate article, all but challenged Moore to a duel. Live by the word, die by the word.
As a filmmaker, Moore lives by the word and, increasingly, by the image. Culling footage from various nooks and crannies of the mediasphere, he’s fashioned a montage barrage that, often as not, uses Bush’s own words and images against him. There’s a shot of Bush addressing a banquet of wealthy types, which he refers to as the haves and the have-mores. “Some call you the elite,” he tells the crowd. “I call you my base.” There’s a shot of Bush making an urgent appeal for the fight against terrorism, then turning around and driving a golf ball into the wild blue yonder. But perhaps the most memorable shot is of Bush, having just been told that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center, sitting there for nearly seven minutes while an elementary-school class completes its reading of “My Pet Goat.” Moore slows the videotape down so that the expression on Bush’s face morphs from anxious to afraid to confused to vacant, then back to anxious. Some might call this a cheap shot, and maybe it is, but the effect is of a little boy waiting to be told what to do.
“Was it all just a dream?” Moore asks about the last four years, and maybe the best way to view Fahrenheit 9/11 is as an alternative history of the United States during one of its darkly comic nightmares. The movie opens with CBS and CNN declaring Al Gore the winner in Florida, only to have Fox News, spear-carrier for the red states, hand the whole country over to Bush. The Supreme Court seconds that emotion, and Bush proceeds to spend 42 percent of his first eight months in office on vacation, a cinematic longeur that’s enlivened by the sight of Paul Wolfowitz prepping for a TV appearance by running a comb first through his mouth, then through his hair. (Another cheap shot: What does his personal grooming have to do with Wolfowitz’s politics?) Then the screen goes black for Moore’s dramatic sound-only reenactment of 9/11, and what had been a comedy has suddenly turned into a tragedy, the Hillbilly banjo music giving way to the wailing violins of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Manipulative? Damn straight, but effective, too.
Now that he has us in the palm of his hand, Moore lays out his next argument—that Bush’s connections with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which go back 30 years, clouded his judgment and influenced his policies as he scrambled to come up with a response to 9/11. Craig Unger covers the same territory in his recent book, House of Bush, House of Saud, and Moore doesn’t add to what Unger wrote so much as supply pictures.
Then he moves on to his final argument—that the upper class always gets the lower class to fight its wars for it. Meet Lila Lipscomb, a self-proclaimed “conservative Democrat” from Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, who lost both her son and her faith in our country’s ideals to the war in Iraq. Distraught, Lipscomb pours out her emotions, and our heart goes out to her, but I couldn’t help wondering about the mothers who’ve lost sons or daughters but still believe in the war. Do they not grieve? What makes Fahrenheit 9/11 so effective is that it combines emotional appeals with both comic relief and—last but not always least—debate-society argumentation.
Some find Moore’s approach engaging. Some find it enraging. And how you find it doesn’t necessarily depend on whether you voted for Bush or Gore the last time around. Imagine a movie much like this one, only about Bill Clinton and directed by Rush Limbaugh. Engaging or enraging? Personally, I think Moore’s funnier than Limbaugh, and I think he’s at his best when he plays the court jester who entertains us paupers by jabbing the king and his court in the ribs. But if he’s determined to dethrone the king and send him packing to the great state of Texas…well, there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution to prevent it. Not yet, anyway.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is rated R with a running time of 112 minutes and is now playing at Vinegar Hill Theatre. For times see page 71 or call 817-FILM.
Right or wrong
What are local conservatives saying about the movie?
The recent debut of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11—an aggressive indictment of President Bush and the war in Iraq—generated much hot air and spilled ink amongst the punditry, many of whom fretted over the documentary’s impact on the November election. Not to be outdone,C-VILLE Weekly tracked down two prominent local Republicans to discover what they think of the movie and its influence on the electorate.
But both Bob Hodous, a local lawyer and chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Party, and Randolph Byrd, a publisher and staunch Republican, plan to skip Moore’s latest work, bolstering the widespread belief that the movie is preaching to the choir.
“I don’t know of a single soul who’s gone to see this movie,” Byrd says.
Both Hodous and Byrd say they follow a broad variety of media, including those which many charge lean to the Left, such as The New York Times. But Michael Moore’s perspective is one that neither of the two Republicans are compelled to heed.
“It would probably piss me off,” Byrd says of Fahrenheit 9/11. “I don’t want to feed this guy’s profits.”
Hodous says he decided to ignore the movie mostly because of having read many news articles and opinion pieces that describe bias and inaccuracies in the film. For example, Houdous says a recent piece by liberal columnist William Raspberry in The Washington Post, which called the movie “an overwrought piece of propaganda” and a “hatchet job that doesn’t even bother to pretend to be fair,” helped him decide to save the $8 for a seat at the Vinegar Hill Theatre.
“I think that [Moore’s] bias is so great that I’m not sure I’d be able to wade through it,” Hodous says.
But though Hodous believes Fahrenheit 9/11 is a cynical effort to tap into knee-jerk leftie hatred of the Bush Administration, he acknowledges that this sort of media pandering occurs among conservatives as well.
“That happens on both sides. It’s sad, because I think we miss a lot that way,” Hodous says.
Byrd strongly echoed this belief, saying that Fahrenheit 9/11 is “meant to enrage the Right as much as [The Passion of The Christ] was meant to appeal to it.” (Byrd saw and liked The Passion.)
But despite the fact that Moore is trying to help oust Bush with a documentary film many conservatives call grossly inaccurate and unfair, Byrd says the Right wing shouldn’t be outraged by the movie.
“Like Rush Limbaugh never goes over the top,” Byrd says with a chuckle.—Paul Fain