"This movie doesn't really have an ending. The ending of this movie takes place on November 2, 2004."
-- Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore in an interview in the July/August issue of Film Comment
Who are swing voters anyway? How is it even possible to still be undecided about the most bitterly contested and most momentous presidential election in most, if not all, of our lifetimes? This is why I don't worry that the battalion of entertainers and artists -- writers, filmmakers, musicians, comedians, etc. --assaulting this disastrous presidency is merely preaching to the choir. It seems far less important at this point to change minds than to mobilize a base whose collective mind has been made since the moment Bush took office. (Sadly prescient Onion headline from Inauguration Day 2001: "BUSH: 'OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE OF PEACE AND PROSPERITY IS OVER.'")
Despite perpetual laments about voter apathy, this unprecedented insertion of popular art into a political election suggests an electorate more tuned in than ever before. As this is being written, half of the top 30 hardcover nonfiction books on The New York Times bestseller list, including the top four, are political titles.
Musically, the Billboard charts may be mostly politics-free, but from hip-hop (Beastie Boys, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' "Vote or Die" campaign) to indie-rock (Rilo Kiley's Bush-baiting "It's a Hit") to punk (Fat Wreck Chords' Rock Against Bush compilations) to mainstream rock (the Vote for Change tour, which participant Bruce Springsteen calls "an emergency intervention") to roots music (the ubiquitous Steve Earle and political records of the year from Todd Snider and Jon Langford), American pop music is perhaps as protest-oriented as it's been since the Nixon administration.
As for film, 2004 has witnessed political documentaries getting wider distribution than ever before. Michael Moore's record-busting Fahrenheit 9/11 is clearly the colossus standing over this shifting film climate, but it isn't alone. On local screens, Fahrenheit was preceded by Errol Morris' brilliant The Fog of War, a profile of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that has enormous relevance to our current foreign misadventures. And it's been followed by Control Room, which profiles Arab news network Al-Jazeera as it covers the invasion of Iraq, and The Hunting of the President, which (rather clumsily) documents the right-wing fire-breathers who conspired to bring down the Clinton presidency. Meanwhile, independent-minded folks at the Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative have hosted several screenings of recent political docs, including the Fox News exposé Outfoxed.
There's more on the way between now and Election Day: The much-heralded documentary The Corporation and the Vietnam-rehashing Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry are both expected to receive local bookings. Fictional films set to weigh in will include John Sayles' Silver City, with actor Chris Cooper as a Bushlike pol, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone's gonzo satire Team America: World Police.
I tend to think that Jon Langford's big-hearted, wide-eyed but gently sarcastic record All the Fame of Lofty Deeds is the political artwork of the year, but I'd be surprised if it's sold more than 20,000 copies, which won't move many bodies to the ballot box. Instead, this year belongs to Fahrenheit 9/11. After it opened, some around the Flyer offices predicted it'd be gone in a couple of weeks, but according to Jeff Kaufman, vice president of film for Malco Theatres, it's the only film that stayed on local screens the entire summer, enjoying a longer local run than Harry Potter or Spider-Man 2, for example. And even as its run ends, the documentary might reappear as part of a planned re-release by its distributor.
"The country is not stupid/Even though it's silent/It still has eyes and ears/It just can't find its mouth," Langford sings hopefully on his underdog of a record. And Moore's film is nothing if not an attempt to answer him -- a way to give a voice to the outrage and disbelief of a segment of the citizenry that feels the country slipping away.
The $100-million-plus grossing Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a movie about something; it's a movie trying to do something. That something is to defeat a sitting president intent on driving the ship of state right over a cliff. (Unless, of course, the Rapture comes first.)
It's difficult to come up with commensurate examples of truly popular entertainers directly taking on a sitting political leader. The best I can do is the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Like those two works of art, Fahrenheit 9/11 is often crude, using any and all recourses to attack its subject -- pies in the face, upturned middle fingers, outright mockery, whatever it takes. Yes, it's as much a howl of anger as a reasoned argument.
This lowbrow nose-thumbing rubbed some gatekeepers on the left the wrong way, as did some of the film's relatively minor fact-bending and perhaps misleading low blows, which some employees of this paper have criticized in print. The same kind of hand-wringing and honorable self-criticism has been virtually absent on the right side of the political divide this year. (Oh, and memo to John McCain: Moore isn't suggesting that life under Saddam Hussein was an idyllic paradise, only that the country was largely populated by innocent civilians trying to lead normal lives, not TV-news caricatures of angry Arabs, and that these people died in the bombing as easily as Saddam's henchmen.)
Frankly, I was more put off by the few distracting tangents (the lone state trooper guarding the Oregon coast -- somehow I doubt that al-Qaeda is preparing to storm the beaches, Normandy-style) than Moore not letting viewers know that Al Gore had spoken to the same crowd of high-rollers Bush jokes is his base or even the unfortunate suggestion that just-passing-by Tennessee congressman John Tanner was a hypocrite on the war.
Sometimes facts can be sketchy without negating essential truths: The Bush administration does pander to its wealthy supporters in ways even more extreme than politics-as-usual. The people who decided to allow this war are not the people sending their kids to fight it. These truths and so many others need to be shouted as loud as possible from the highest mountain. By any means necessary. And that's precisely what Moore has accomplished.
Besides, what Fahrenheit 9/11 gets right is so much more important than what it might get wrong. Moore is not a technically brilliant filmmaker or a precise thinker. (See The Fog of War for topical political filmmaking with both traits.) The work is like the man -- big and messy and garrulous. But with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's juxtaposition of found footage is filmmaking at a level that dwarves his previous work. By following a callow, smirking Bush telling NBC's Tim Russert that he doesn't intend to testify before the 9/11 commission with a tough but tearful confession by a 9/11 widow that the investigation is all she has left to live for, Moore comes up with the most damning political ad of the year. And by undercutting Donald Rumsfeld's bluster about the military's precise targeting with footage of a hysterical Iraqi woman in front of her demolished home, praying for vengeance from Allah, Moore suggests the self-delusion and awful pointlessness of the war in Iraq.
But even those bravura moments are only set-ups for what is most compelling about the film: its portrait of an American military misused by civilian leaders, where the least among us sacrifice the most and do so proudly. For their sake, and your and mine, let's hope Moore's movie has a happy ending. •