The temperature at which Freedom Fries

Monday, 5 July 2004 — 11:46am | Film, Full reviews

As somewhat who spends a disproportionate quantity of time writing about film, this is admittedly nothing short of blasphemy, but eulogies for the late, great Marlon Brando are going to have to wait. First, I need to catch up on this Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Terminal business so I can get to what I really want to do, which is write volumes about the so very special Spider-Man 2. All three are worthy of a trip to the cinema, but it is the superhero sequel that boasts a volume of potential for literary critique that outstrips the other two combined. Fortunately – in the sense of getting reviews out of the pipeline, anyway – in spite of De-Lovely opening in arthouse screens this weekend in the United States, a Canadian release is nowhere in sight; the essay in the making that is I, Robot is two weeks away; as such, I have a fair bit of catch-up time at my disposal.

Fahrenheit 9/11 has been discussed to death in circles political and otherwise, and there is little this here writer can add to the volume of discourse on the subject other than taking sides on certain issues. The primary question, then, is whether or not a film that has exhibited such an impact in the media at large just by existing, let alone having its contents examined, can be discussed free of contextual prejudices – in other words, as a documentary and nothing else.

Since I do not possess a fanciful array of fact-checkers at my disposal, let us focus not on whether or not this Michael Moore character is right or wrong about the disunited state of America, but on what this movie says about his skills of an artist. Those of you with long memories or bound editions may recall my glowing review of Bowling For Columbine in the 24 September, 2002 issue of The Gateway (which, sadly, is not present in the online archives). I called it “a mosaic of celluloid evidence that is objective in its structure and cinematographic style… [it] juxtaposes these clips in a fashion that coheres as a cunningly subliminal and utterly convincing argument against everything that Moore blames” – and the activist filmmaker tries to do the same thing here. Like Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11‘s primary strength is in its meticulous editing, a juggling act of footage that informs, entertains, or tries to jerk a few tears. In the film’s more amusing moments, it splices clips from classic television shows such as Dragnet and Bonanza, not to mention an interview with Britney Spears, and manages to make them look impressively topical.

In stark contrast is how it follows Lila Lipscomb, a war mother from his hometown of Flint, Michigan – seen early in the film as a proud and patriotic woman who hangs an American flag outside her door every morning, only to return later alongside a key piece of new information: that she lost one of her children to last year’s campaign in Iraq. Think of it as a structural representation of that time-worn camera direction, “pull back to reveal.” As in his other works, Moore often features himself as an onscreen interviewer with an arsenal of loaded questions, but is at his best when he sits back and leaves the narration to the unstageable. For all the accusations of fakery and manipulation, the substance of some of his points still holds. The impact of one soldier’s loss on his family is something that is statistically negligible in war, but Moore plays it in so personal a way that it demands sympathy, and advocates his belief that the reasons for entry into Iraq were not worthy of a single death.

It should be noted, though, that of the two, Columbine is the stronger film – and this is where context can no longer be avoided. The difference lies in the extent of sin by omission. Up until Fahrenheit arrived on the scene and gave them bigger fish to fry, the ongoing debates about the factual accuracy of Moore’s earlier documentary raged on, but the disputes failed to topple the essence of his thesis, which is presented with such conviction it seems irrefutable: that a lot of Americans own guns to flaunt some cultural identity or right, and boy, is it silly. The thesis of Fahrenheit 9/11 is that George W. Bush does not always have America’s interests at heart in order to flaunt some conflict of interest with his Middle East business buddies, and boy, is he silly. The problem with the latter is that the material he quite intentionally and sensibly omits – after all, one does not carry the burden of presenting the opposition case – is a lot stronger and a lot more relevant to the big picture. Identifying the Bush administration, not its enemies, as being the solely responsible force that sends innocent soldier boys to their physical or psychological deaths is already a big step towards implicitly absolving Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein of any guilt; the former dictator’s Iraq is portrayed as harmless, toothless little place in the sun where little boys play in the streets, never mind its curiously unmentioned security-by-fear approach that Moore openly fingers Bush of abusing.

Fahrenheit 9/11 carves out its intent as to entertain those who smile and nod in agreement with everything it says, pick a good fight with the other end of the political spectrum, and bring the undecided voters of America onside. With respect to the first two, it excels; but its success depends on whether or not that third demographic actually exists, and if so, to what extent. Without a doubt, by compiling all the anti-Bush arguments of what they call down there the “liberal media” into a two-hour timeframe and releasing it in a highly accessible medium, Moore has made a movie that will keep the Republicans on the defensive for a few months to come. Whether or not anybody will actually be swayed by a movie they likely attend with some built-in preconceptions has yet to be seen; for all we know, it could be the equivalent of a Mustafa Hirji campaign against a Universal Bus Pass deal – clever, substantial, but ineffective insofar as getting anybody to switch sides.

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