Reel Politics: ‘Fahrenheit 9/11′
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JEFFREY BROWN: Fahrenheit 9/11 opened today on nearly 900 screens nationwide. In past films, Director Michael Moore has targeted General Motors and the gun lobby. Here he sharply takes on the Bush administration for, among other things, alleged ties to the Saudis, the Iraq war, and the president’s leadership style.
SPOKESMAN: With everything going wrong, he did what any of us would do: He went on vacation.
SINGING: Vacation all I ever wanted
vacation have to get away
JEFFREY BROWN: The film has garnered a grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and a major controversy here at home. Two movie critics share their views with us: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post. Kenneth Turan, you called this a landmark in American political film making. What makes it so effective in your view?
KENNETH TURAN: Well, first of all, one of the reasons it is a landmark is the timing of when it’s coming out, that’s it coming out right now almost in the middle of the presidential campaign with really the intent to make a difference in that campaign. For me, what made it a successful film was the fact that they… Michael Moore gathers a lot of information, there’s a lot of different focuses in this film. He talks about Iraq, he talks about Afghanistan, he goes all the way back to the Gore/Bush election, and he ties it all together, which is very difficult to do. And he does it largely without– though not completely without– his trademark style, which is being on camera himself, being confrontational himself. He does that a little bit, but for a Michael Moore film, he is surprisingly in the background this time around.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jonathan Foreman, by contrast, you called this movie “clever if breathtakingly sleazy political propaganda.” Is your problem with the movie as movie-making or for its politics?
JONATHAN FOREMAN: I don’t really think you can separate those two things in the sense that… I mean, let me rephrase that. My problem isn’t with its point of view; it’s the way it tries to put that point of view forward, the fact that it’s dishonest, the fact that it doesn’t adhere to our traditional standards of documentary filmmaking. In fact, even the very modest standards of, say, op-ed writing. It seems to be part of the general degradation of our political culture. It’s the sort of reality TV level of political filmmaking. It’s more like an advertisement, really. It’s like a long political ad, the kind of dishonest thing both parties put out every four years.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s look at an example. We have a clip just to give our audience the sense of the flavor of the movie. This is Michael Moore confronting several congressmen near the Capitol in Washington.
MICHAEL MOORE: Congressman? I’m Michael Moore.
CONGRESSMAN: Hi, Michael, how are you doing?
MICHAEL MOORE: I’m good.
SPOKESMAN: John Tanner.
MICHAEL MOORE: Nice to meet you, very nice to meet you. Do you have kids? Is there any way we can get them to enlist and go over there and help out with the effort? Congressman? Michael Moore.
SPOKESMAN: How are you today?
MICHAEL MOORE: Good. Good. I’m trying to get members of congress to get their kids to enlist in the army and go over to Iraq. Congressman? Congressman? Congressman Castle? Congressman Castle? Congressman Doolittle, Michael Moore.
MICHAEL MOORE: I wonder if…
NARRATOR: Of course, not a single member of Congress wanted to sacrifice their child for the war in Iraq. And who could blame them? Who would want to give up their child? Would you?
JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan Foreman, let me let you have the first whack at that scene. What do you make of the style?
JONATHAN FOREMAN: Well, I’m sorry, I just think that’s a ridiculous stunt, and it’s also deeply dishonest. First of all, there are several congressman and senators who have children serving in the forces. Even John Ashcroft’s son just came back from a tour in the navy in the Gulf. Joseph Biden has got a son out there. And what people forget is that, first of all we don’t know these congressmen, we don’t know how old their children are. Maybe their children… maybe they have five-year-old kids. You can’t sign them up into the army. In fact, you can’t sign your own children up into the army. We don’t own our children as chattel. So it’s also a very heavily edited scene and a very dishonest and a very manipulative one. You can’t sign someone up to go to Iraq. It just seems so… to me, the whole thing seems to me fraudulent and kind of beneath contempt, really, even as political argument.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kenneth Turan, what’s your view?
KENNETH TURAN: Well, I’m just chuckling to hear this. I mean, well, first of all, obviously there are things you can nit-pick about this film. But I think it’s trying to make a larger point, and in this particular scene especially. The last figure I saw was that there are several congressmen, members of the House and Senate, who have children who serve. The last figure I saw in the newspapers was four. Four out of 535 is not a large number. The larger point that Michael Moore wants to make– which other parts of the film do make– is that this is a war fought largely by poor people, that the services troll for recruits in poor neighborhoods, that really it’s not the children of affluence, it’s the children of poverty who are fighting this war. And I think that’s a valid point to make. And, again, I have to say I was chuckling all the way through Jonathan’s screed. You know, I just really think if this had been… if the shoe was on the other foot, he would be defending this film. I think so much of the criticism in this film that pretends to be on aesthetic grounds is completely on political grounds.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kenneth Turan, tell us, help an audience approaching this movie. Do we go to it and understand it as propaganda, as an op-ed, as art? And if so, what responsibility does the filmmaker have to be accurate, to be fair?
KENNETH TURAN: I think really you have to understand this film, basically. This is… Michael Moore is a provocateur, Michael Moore is a propagandist. But I think propaganda is most effective when it’s grounded in truth. There are things we see in this film that I have not seen before. There are things that are… you know, just kind of opened my eyes to situations that I have not been aware of. One of the footage that’s been talked about the most is a clip of President Bush after he’d heard about the second plane hitting the second tower sitting for seven minutes in a Florida classroom listening to children read “My Pet Goat.” And, you know, this happened. We just haven’t seen it. And it doesn’t put the president in the best possible light. And, again, this is a partisan film. There’s no getting away from it. Michael Moore would not want to escape it. But I don’t think this invalidates it. Just like the fact that being partisan doesn’t seem to invalidate Rush Limbaugh on the radio. People think, well, he’s partisan, that’s his right. Well, it’s Michael Moore’s right to be partisan on the other side.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jonathan Foreman, it’s clear Michael Moore is very up front about his views and what he’s trying to do. So how do you suggest an audience approach the movie?
JONATHAN FOREMAN: Well, I think by taking it with an enormous grain of salt. I mean, I think one of the things that… and I appreciate what Stewart is saying, but do we want… do we want to hold the… is the Rush Limbaugh standard the standard that we want to hold our political discourse to? I mean, I’m not a fan of his and I’m not a fan of Michael Moore’s. Yes, there are parts of the film that are funny and parts that are amusing and parts that are moving even. It’s just that it is a first. It’s a full-length political advertisement as a feature film. It’s not in the tradition of documentaries of the kind… you know, it’s no “Spellbound,” it’s no “Capturing the Freedmans,” it’s not like “Harlan County U.S.A.”
It doesn’t give both sides. It doesn’t pretend to. It’s frankly partisan. That’s okay. I mean I haven’t got a problem with that. No one’s stopping people on the other side from making these sort of films. I just think we should be very careful when we think about, is this… are these things true? There are things in the movie that are really… would offend anyone who really knew the truth. When he shows pictures of happy Iraq before the bombs fall — I mean, anyone who really knows anything about Iraq knows that that’s a very, very misleading piece of footage, and cut suddenly to bombs exploding on, incidentally, the ministry of defense.
That’s very manipulative in a way that is crude. It’s not manipulative… it’s not good political cinema in a way that’s interesting or artful. It represents a lowering of standards, and I think it’s very strange the way that so many people who believe in the anti-Bush message are willing to drop their critical standards because they agree with the message of the film. I mean, I think that’s wrong when it happens on both sides of the political fence.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Kenneth Turan a brief comment. Michael Moore is clear about his intent here. I know it’s hard to sit there and say what impact this will have, but does a film like this, do you think, have the power to sway votes or to galvanize voters?
KENNETH TURAN: Frankly, I think that’s very much of an open question. It’s really unclear. As passionate as this film is, it may turn people off. It may just succeed in, to use the phrase, energizing the base. It’s not going to… you know, Vice President Cheney is not going to see this and decide he wants to switch parties. It’s not going to have any impact on people firmly on the other side. But it may energize the liberal base, and it may… the big question is: Will it work at all with undecided voters? That is the question, and no one else knows the answer.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post, thanks to you both.