12 July, 2004

The Reigning Storyteller

Nation Weekly magazine, July 12, 2004

Americans like their heros to be lean and mean – not fat and shaggy, shambling and unshaven as Michael Moore, who won the best film award for “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the Cannes Film Festival, tends to be. Farenehit 9/11 asks questions that many of us have been asking post 9/11. How come the Bin Laden family were flown out of the US before they could be questioned? Both the Bush family and the Bin Laden family have cosy business connections with the Carlyle Group, an investment company with deep investments in defense and aerospace industries – how was this linkage never investigated? How come Haliburton, a defense company which has gotten multiple, non-competitive contracts for the war in Iraq, had Dick Cheney, current vice-president of the USA, as its former CEO?
Moore is a polemic documentary-maker and author well-known for taking on big business head-on, and he does this unapologetically and with his trademark bite of satiric humor. His previous best-selling documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”, aimed at the incendiary topic of gun-control in America. He examined the incident in Columbine when two young boys, in the fashion of Crown Prince Dipendra, went berserk and shot their classmates before killing themselves. “Bowling” raised questions about rampant and uncontrolled gun ownership and was a hit with audiences over America and worldwide.
But even Moore may have been unprepared for what is happening with his new film. Fahrenheit 9/11 beat the opening weekend of "Return of the Jedi”, broke "Rocky III’s" record for the biggest box office opening weekend ever for any film that opened in less than a thousand theaters, and went to #2 on the all-time list for largest per-theater average ever for a film that opened in wide-release. Whoever said Americans were not interested in politics?
And whoever said flag-waving and patriotism was reserved for dumb Americans who watch Fox news and believe it? Moore’s biggest coup is making this delicate shift from rabble-rouser to patriot. He goes from a man who could potentially be branded, in the fear-crazed atmosphere of Terrorized America, as domestic terrorist to a true citizen of America. And that’s when the shambling, I-come-from-a-factory-town-in-Flint-Michigan-and-I-know-the-heartland claim comes in handy. Cowboy Bush may know how to say “Bring it on!”, but he should not have opened his big mouth to Moore when he yelled at him cheerily: Hey Mike, get a real job! This scene is ruthlessly used by Moore, who takes up the challenge by showing how Bush was on vacation 45% of the time just before the WTC bombings.
Bush stays in the classroom watching children reading a story about a goat while planes destroy the World Trade Center. Bush looks less like a president than a deer caught in the headlights. Moore’s intention may have been to call attention to Bush’s ineptitude but he also does a delicate job of slipping in the question – how can this man not have known what was going on? The majority of the highjackers in the plane were Saudis, not Iraqis or Afganis. And Moore spends a great deal of time dissecting the Bush family’s business connections with Saudi Arabia.
Moore is acutely aware of the need to be populist in his mission to get Bush dethroned. To accomplish this mission, he goes back to the voting heartland of America. He picks a strong character – a patriotic woman from Flint who loses her son in Iraq. Filmed with quiet sympathy for a military family, this segment is a coup d’ etat, allowing both the anti-war Left who see soldiers as intrinsic enemies, and the families of soldiers, to participate in the outrage that is the Iraq war. The military families, shielded from the realities of 1000 dead American soldiers and thousands of wounded by the mainstream American press, get to know that the per diem of each soldier as well as veteran benefits have been brutally slashed by the Bush administration.
Documentaries are made and played to be film’s poor cousin. They rarely get theatrical releases. Moore has changed all this with his spectacular results of the bottomline – box office records. Time magazine even ran a point by point breakdown of the Moore Method – comedy, tragedy, infiltration, confrontation and speculation – analyzing what makes him the undeniable master of his own genre. Christopher Hitchens, another documentary-maker who shot to fame unmasking political myths with “The Trails of Henry Kissinger”, rants jealously in Slate.com about Fahrenheit. Poor Hitchens! Reduced to mediocrity, he will never reach the same heights as Moore simply because he lacks a showman’s approach. Moore, more than anything else, is an entertainer who speaks truth to power. Who but Moore could write a book called “Stupid White Men” and get away with it – or even better, see it soar to the top of the bestseller charts?
At the end of the day, a good story can steal an election, launch a war, change the face of global politics, and buy time for a cabal of murderers. The entertainment factor, more than the truth, matters in America. By cuing himself to the populist power of the media and entertainment, Moore might have made himself more powerful than the President of the United States. Now lets see who wins that goddamn election. Bring it on!

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