Fahrenheit 9/11 — A Boiling Point

While there has been no shortage of media coverage about the recent release of Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, I feel compelled to add my voice to the mix. For those of you who have paged through previous blog entries, you’ll note that I don’t write entries on any sort of regular schedule (though I tried, albeit briefly) and that I seem somewhat fixated on baseball (guilty as charged). Perhaps in an effort to avoid polemical emails, I have generally shied away from sharing my political views with strangers via the Internet. Thus far, the only unsolicited mail I’ve received via this website has been positive and affirming. That said, I’ve grown weary of what seems to be an increasingly polarized view of our country, its foreign policy, and its elected leaders. I have a friend visiting from Paris and he is astonished when watching Fox News (“It’s like they’re not allowed to criticize Bush. They just throw away all of the information and say he’s great.”) or any of the other cable news networks (“Why don’t they just tell you the facts instead of telling you what your opinion should be?”) There are so many politicians and pundits being compared to Joseph Goebbels that I’ve lost count.

The cover of this week’s issue of The New York Press asks a rather pointed question: Is Michael Moore a fascist? You’d think if Michael Moore could score with someone, it would be an African American from his home state of Michigan. But Armond White skewers Fahrenheit and takes Moore to task repeatedly for editing decisions that range from lazy to disingenuous. But Michael Moore isn’t a fascist, but rather the embodiment of almost everything that he’s fought. To look at him is to see the stereotypical “ugly American” — unshaven, morbidly obese, and typically clad in ratty clothes and a baseball hat. But Moore’s appearance is not the problem. And though it raises more than a few eyebrows, his hypocrisy, i.e. his wealth, apparent lack of compassion, and status among society’s elites, does not necessarily invalidate his message. Moore’s lack of credibility stems not from his lifestyle or his personality, but rather from his dishonesty.

Irony was lost amid the boos that rained down on Michael Moore after punctuated his “Best Documentary” Oscar speech by lambasting George W. Bush, calling him a “fictitious president.” No matter what your views are on the 2000 election (full disclosure: I think what happened was a travesty, which puts me squarely in the Moore camp), it’s hard to accept anything Moore says as truthful. The documentary film category is supposed to recognize directors who released films that are, in the words of Merriam Webster, “factual” and “objective.” Bowling for Columbine was neither.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone is truly objective. Our views and attitudes are shaped by our experiences and they inform everything we say, write, and do. But even if I dismiss objectivity as a requirement, I can’t be so forgiving about Moore’s lack of honesty. Were the Academy to add a category for propaganda, or perhaps, documentary-style editorial films, I wouldn’t object to a film like Bowling for Columbine’s being nominated or awarded an Oscar. But for Michael Moore to indict the media, as he did later in his rant, for not “doing their job” was blatantly hypocritical. Western societies get most of their information from the media, be it the news media, Internet, film, newspapers, magazines, or some other source. Should Michael Moore want to hold CNN to a certain standard, shouldn’t he aspire to that level as well. In the case of a major news organization, there is so much internal accountability that one can almost (but not quite) understand why the reporting is lacking. But for a “documentary” filmmaker, the layers of bureaucracy are far thinner and the director is empowered to deliver the unvarnished truth in a way that a newspaper or television channel can’t. This freedom demands of the filmmaker a great responsibility, a responsibility that Michael Moore was ill-equipped to handle.

Cogent Moore defenders will rationalize away his factual liberties by labeling him a polemicist or a propagandist. I submit that if one accepts those labels, one can no longer take Moore seriously as a documentary filmmaker. The half-truths and outright lies in Bowling for Columbine are, by now, well documented. Among them:

  • The scene where Moore opens an account at a bank and walks out with a gun was staged.
  • A Charlton Heston speech that was purportedly delivered just after the Flint school shooting actually took place almost a year later.
  • The Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton that manufactures “weapons of mass destruction” actually makes rockets for television satellites. Moore was close; he should have said that they launched “weapons of mass distraction.”

The problem with Moore is that he has become the boy who cried wolf. Roger & Me was an excellent film, and Moore’s rise from behind-the-scenes magazine editor to national (and now international) public figure has been Horatio Algeresque. But every pimply teenager who has read Spiderman knows that “With great power comes great responsibility.” If Stan Lee doesn’t land in Bartlett’s for that, someone isn’t doing his job. What Moore seems to have missed is a lesson that every college student learns, “Power corrupts.” Having risen to prominence in our popular culture, he has a platform the likes of which most will never know. While he assails the corrupting influence of power in those around him, though, Moore remains unwilling or unable to look in the mirror.

Why does this matter? In broad terms, this is important because so many people in this country develop opinions by consuming the information that’s placed before them. Funny pictures and embarrassing sound bytes may be easily digestible, but aren’t necessarily nourishing. French documentary film maker, Jean-Luc Goddard, commenting on Fahrenheit 9/11, said, “Moore doesn’t distinguish between text and image. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But again, the question is “Why does this matter?” Goddard has an answer: “He’s not even hurting Bush. He’s helping him in an underground way. Bush is either less stupid than he looks or so stupid you can’t change him.” That’s an interesting argument, but the issue isn’t simply George Bush, or the U.S.A., or Roger Smith, or any of Moore’s other preferred targets. It’s Moore himself. It’s not inherently wrong for a director to make himself such an important component of his “documentary” film. But Moore’s insistence on branding himself has seriously damaged his credibility even while it has padded his bank account. His anonymity gone, the film-going audience has little choice but to connect the mistruths in his films to the director. And how many times can he cry wolf before we stop believing?

The sad part of all of this is that I don’t totally disagree with Moore. I, too, am upset about the 2000 election, the President’s foreign and domestic policy, and the continued assaults on the Constitution by the current administration and the Congress. In succumbing to his ego and making himself bigger than the issues, Moore undermines the issues he claims to espouse. To his potential detractors, Moore says, “You come at me with anything, we come back with the truth.” Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Related reading:
Newsweek looks at some questions about Fahrenheit 9/11:

Pied Piper or Bully

A Documentary on Michael Moore

A “horrible human being?” Ray Bradbury thinks so.

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