Tonight's #3 headline on Yahoo's Most Watched News page (the first place I look for news, several times a day) is "'Fahrenheit 9/11' Sets Documentary Record." That's consistent with my experience. I went on Sunday afternoon. The theater I saw it at had it on 3 screens at once. I got into the 4:00 pm showing. There was a long line to get in, and several of the earlier showings had sold out. That's on day three of the opening for a documentary. That's unheard of. I've never seen anything like it.
Oh, and the League of Women Voters had a voter registration booth set up in front of the theater where I saw it. They weren't doing a very brisk business; judging by the line conversations it seemed like most of the people there were pretty politically active to start with. Still, it was nice to see it. And speaking of voter registration, if you live in Missouri and are not registered to vote at your current address, then it is absolutely essential that you register to vote this week. July 7th is the deadline to register if you want to vote in the August election, and that's the one that the gay marriage amendment will be on.
But anyway, back to the film. I want to talk about it from two different angles: as politics, and as a film
At least one critic that I've already read has pointed out that Michael Moore is of the "throw a bunch of mud at the wall and see what sticks" school of political attack. Bush is accused of ignorance, arrogance, cocaine abuse, conspiracy to steal the 2000 election, Big-Brother-like editing of people out of history, conspiracy to protect possible supporters of Al Qaeda, lying about Afghanistan, lying about Iraq, lying about Al Qaeda, lying about weapons of mass destruction, lying about civilian casualties in Iraq, conspiracy to commit mass murder, waging war primarily so companies that have done him personal favors can profiteer from it, and Moore only barely stops short of actually saying that Bush and his backers are artificially keeping the real unemployment rate in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan at around 50% so he can find plenty of poor people willing to go into the military. Instead, he merely insinuates it ... really loudly. Still, in that shotgun blast of inuendo two moments stood out, and I think that they're likely to stand out for other people. As with Moore's other works, they come at about the 2/3 point in the film, where Moore always seems to put his only really good footage. ("Pets or Meat" in Roger And Me and "Open Doors in Canada" in Bowling for Columbine.)
First of all, there's this long bit where he gets permission to follow around a couple of Marine Corps recruiters working the kids at the mall in the poorer neighborhood in Flint. These guys are very slick, but then, I've heard kukla_tko42's recruiter story, and the lies the recruiters tell these kids are very compatible with the scam they tried to pull on her. He also interviews an official at an unemployment counseling center and a bunch of kids at a high school, and the consensus from all three bits was that poor people all have family members in Iraq. Then a few scenes later, he persuades a Marine Corps recruiter to join him in wandering around the sidewalks outside of the House and Senate office buildings. You see, he reminds us that unlike the roughly 50% in his neighborhood, out of all 535 congressmen and senators, including those who voted for the war, only one has a family member fighting in Iraq. And when Moore asks congressmen and senators if they'd be willing to take recruiting literature home to their kids, this hits them entirely by surprise, entirely out of the blue. It's obvious that they've never thought of it before, and that the idea is visibly repulsive to them. Instantly. It's like throwing a switch. The first guy we see is a fan of Moore, or at least pretends to be really happy to see him. He's even happier to see the Marine, and starts reminiscing fondly about his own service in the Navy in Vietnam and the Marines who guarded his base. And as soon as Moore brings up the idea of his son serving in the military, and asks him to take home a recruiting brochure, he can not keep the fear or revulsion off of his face, camera or no camera. You can see him thinking it: MY son? Die in Iraq? GOD, no! What kind of a sicko would ask me that? And it keeps happening, until enough time has passed that obviously word has gotten around the grapevine what he's doing, because eventually liberal and conservative senators are trying to escape from him, on sight, at an awkward waddling run.
The other really powerful moment comes when Moore catches up with that woman who works in the job service, whose son has since died in Iraq. She's in DC on business, and decides to go look at the White House on her lunch break. She gets there (with Moore, who has a camera) and finds a female Iraqi anti-war protester camped on the sidewalk, begging people to take a stand against the war. Our person stops, and the protester starts in on her about how the US Army is killing civilians in Iraq, and that's why the Iraqi people are rising up against them. And she has this massive breakthrough on camera, because in the earlier interview she was standing up for the troops, including her son, but she just stands there agreeing with the woman protester, who's obviously distraught - it turns out she lost a son. Finally the two women get it across to each other that this war has cost each of them a son. And it is just exactly at this point that some pro-war demonstrator shows up and starts screaming at the Iraqi woman that everything she's saying is a lie, that it's pro-Saddam propaganda, that none of it is true. The woman we came here with tries to talk sense to her, and just gives up and walks away. The pro-war demonstrator yells something incoherent as we're walking away. The woman we're following gets about six steps closer to the White House before just completely losing it, doubled over sobbing. Moore, who obviously couldn't make it out, is puzzled and asks, "What did she say?" "She said that George Bush didn't send my son to die in Iraq, Al Qaeda did. That's the kind of ignorance that I have to deal with every day, and (sob) oh, it hurts so much." Powerful, powerful stuff.
There's also some pretty good stuff with crippled veterans at Walter Reed who are making it very damned clear just how betrayed they feel over every part of this; the lies that sent them to war, the things they were ordered to do over there, the support they didn't get over there, and the budget cuts and other indignities the Bush administration has heaped on them since they came back with limbs blown off. They know damn well that what the Republicans are doing isn't "supporting our troops," and one by one you get bitter crippled Iraq War veterans begging people to do anything to keep Bush from winning in 2004. Oh, and speaking of "support our troops," one soldier whose job was guarding Haliburton employees wanted to know why what they were doing was so much more important than what he was doing that the government was paying them four times as much per month to do it. I know the answer to that, it's been in the business press. Iraq is a war zone. If you want people to work there, you have to pay that extra money to get them to do it. So the justification for this is, "Gotcha!"? You, the soldier, would go to jail if you turned this job down, so we can pay you 75% less? How's that supposed to make them feel? How is that "supporting our troops"?
But yeah, for all that there's some very emotionally gut-wrenching and potentially kind of vaguely effective stuff in here, I do have to say that it's just not a very good movie, judged as a movie. It's missing something that both of the previous movies had: a plot, a narrative device, a thread of continuity. Roger and Me had the contrived fiction that Moore wasn't collecting together interviews on the subject of economic devastation in the Rust Belt; theoretically he was in all of those places because he heard that the CEO of GM might be there. Yeah, right ... but as story-telling, it worked. And in Bowling for Columbine he admits right up front that he's documenting his own process of exploration of the subject. He visibly changes his mind at least three times in that movie, and the process by which one person or group or experience after another convinces him that each of his new theories about the cause of American gun violence just can't be right becomes the plot of the movie. But Fahrenheit 9/11 has no such voyage, no such journey, no such itinerary. It's just a vaguely more or less (but not really) kind of chronological account of how Bush is evil, which just isn't as compelling a story.
See it or not as suits you. It's not going to change your mind. It's not going to tell you much that you didn't already know; Moore's conspiracy theory "smoking gun" document is interesting as trivia but makes no sense as conspiracy theory. You'll walk out of the theater wrung out from other peoples' grief; if you think you need to see what a documentary film maker can do with the material that the TV networks are mostly scared to air about what this war is doing to servicemen and their families, then you should definitely go see this movie. But having seen the trailer for it before the film, I'm much more interested in the upcoming chance to see the documentary The Corporation.
(My stress levels have nothing to do with my politics or this movie. I've got some personal stuff going on that's going to have to be in a friends-locked post; I'll write something about it tomorrow.)