I am back from seeing about eight thousand previews of coming attractions which were followed by the new Michael Moore film. What follows is my instant reaction and I reserve the right to expand on or amend the following in the days to come. There was a lot there to think about...and I guess that alone speaks well of the movie. For the most part, I enjoyed it more than I expected, and I'm glad I went...and actually wish I'd gone earlier. I have not attended a lot of the big hit movies of the last few years because by the time I could get around to going, I felt like I'd already seen all the best moments in commercials and talk show clips. There was a lot in Fahrenheit 9/11 that was new and unexpected to me but I think I'd have had a better time if I wasn't already sick of the clip of Bush hitting the golf ball and the clip of Moore driving around Washington blasting the Patriot Act through loudspeakers and the clip of the old man dancing at the amusement park. (Oh, wait. That last one's not from this movie. It's the new Six Flags advertising campaign...)
A polemic such as this movie forces me to confront a question for which I have no easy answer. To what extent should we tolerate fighting dirty against opponents who are not only fighting dirty but winning? Moore lands some low blows and does a lot of emotional manipulation in Fahrenheit 9/11
but nothing that hasn't become the norm in talk radio and political campaigns.
We live in an era where, for example, it is inconceivable that a candidate could
have skeletons in his closet and his opponents would say, "Let's rise above that
kind of thing and not use it." If you were running against me for public
office and you unearthed a piece of dirt about me — or even something of
questionable accuracy that might stick anyway — it would be hurled.
You might keep your hands clean and not hurl it yourself but
someone on your side would make sure it got out there. If I had something
on you — and again, it wouldn't have to be totally true, just hard to disprove
— would I use it against you? I'd like to think I wouldn't but I'd also like to
think I could win without it...and I can't be sure of either.
I suspect a lot of the folks who are mad at Michael Moore don't know it (or won't admit it) but they're actually mad at Bush and his cohorts for leaving so many mudballs around for their opponents to hurl. They range from all the times Bush has stumbled over proper names and gotten that "deer/headlights" look in mid-sentence to all the times this administration has backtracked on its own words. If you generally like the direction in which Bush is taking this country, it must make the heart sink to see a clip of Bush saying "This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda," followed by an old clip of him pretty much saying that. Maybe there's a simple explanation...but there was also a simple explanation for Al Gore's seeming claim that he'd "invented the Internet," and his foes never let that stop them from selling it as an example of his dishonesty. Does anyone seriously think those who want to defeat Kerry will not use every unflattering clip of the man they can get their mitts on? For good or ill, this is how the game is now played, and we might as well get used to it.
Throughout Fahrenheit 9/11, I was conscious that Moore was tossing out a lot of circumstantial indictments and charges that were not fully formed. For example, he makes a huge deal of financial ties between the Bush family and various Saudis but never quite boils it down to a specific accusation that because of them, either President Bush did something that was not in America's best interests. On the other hand, Bush's folks made a huge deal of the fact that they found a long-ago photo of John Kerry seated two rows from Jane Fonda at some concert or speech. Both sides do it, and since it works, they will continue to do it...so I can have one of two possible reactions: I can wince at the tactic of guilt-by-association and condemn Moore for using it. Or as a person who thinks George W. Bush has been very bad for this country, I can applaud Moore for landing a blow for "our side." W hich reaction do I have? I don't know. I don't like either of them, any more than I like the names I'm going to have to pick from when I mark my ballot.
Some are saying this film could sway the election, and I think they're wrong. It won't cause a lot of Bush voters to go Kerry, if only because they won't see it. Voters on the fence could conceivably be swayed, though I suspect those folks will have plenty of other factors competing for their sympathies before November, by which time Moore's film will be largely forgotten. My guess is that the main damage Fahrenheit 9/11 will do to Bush is to get some folks who were already planning to vote against him to make sure they get to the polls and maybe to donate and work harder for his defeat. And the main damage it will do to us is that next year, if Moore wins the Oscar for Best Documentary, we'll have to listen to another boorish acceptance speech.