Friday, July 23, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore) -- C+

Couple passes by a neighbors house and hears screams. Looking in, they see that a father beating his kid to a pulp. The wife exclaims, "That's horrible!" And the husband replies, "Yeah, who in heaven would think of wear a green jacket with a blue plaid shirt?!?"

It's one of those lame jokes about missing the point, the kind of which kept popping into my head towards the end of my viewing of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. The movie's a singularly frustrating experience: it's as if Lars von Trier invented a Sixth Obstruction: "Use the most powerful footage you can find [9/11 footage], choose the easiest target [Bush], and the worst major decision of a leader you can think of [Invasion of Iraq]. Then come up with something totally mediocre."

I'll address the big points that Moore missed further down, but let's talk about what's good here. Moore gets serious props for that opening, cross-cutting various Bushies prepping for on camera interviews (especially the Wolfowitz spit-mousse moment). That opening announces that Moore's gonna expose Bush's brilliantly managed media stagecraft to show the true face of the buffoon in the Oval Office, and the movie's never more effective than when he's making the smirking chimp look foolish. He more or less captures the essence of Dubya as a silver spooned slacker who's never succeeded at a single thing. Whenever Moore stays within his realm as a master cheap shot provocateur, the film works.

More substantively, Moore's right on target in showing how the Pentagon (and the GOP) uses the bleak future of the lower class as a recruiting tool for the armed forces. Connected chickenhawks bloviate about democracy in their cigar rooms while poor middle American kids are sent to do the dirty work. Moore exposes this outrage. The recruiting bit and especially Moore's baiting of chickenhawk congressman redeems Moore's gonzo approach. But Moore wants more. He wants to turn Bush into the Bogeyman of the Ages, and in his eagerness to destroy the man, Moore lapses into incoherence.

The first problem is structure: the movie's just too scattershot. Any one of the following subjects would make a compelling documentary: the Florida vote and recount, the Bush/Saudi connection, the Bushies inadequate response to 9/11, the Bushies' Iraq Plan of Attack, the failure of postwar planning, the ten servers' worth of right-wing hypocrisy, the failed war on terror, the burden of war placed squarely on the lower classes, the Administration's abysmally skewed priorities, and Bush's life of blissful failure. Even though he makes some interesting points (e.g, the Congressional Black Caucus protest of Bush v. Gore), Moore doesn't probe deep enough into any one of these issues. He spends about 10 minutes and then moves on. The goal seems to try to paint an overall picture of administration failure, but most people who read the news already know this. The trick is figure out how and why the Bushies are such failures. Unfortunately, Moore isn't up for the task of being the wonk explainer.

Like many lefty populists, Moore is clueless about geopolitics, and prone to the activists' penchant to reduce the everything into a worldview best summarized by inane slogans like "Power to the People" or "Multinational corporations are evil". All the evil in the world is driven by greedy capitalists and their profit-motive. Afflicted with activist myopia, it really isn't much of a surprise that Moore latches on to the weakest case in popular circulation against Bush -- that he's a stooge for oil interests and Saudi Arabia -- as his grand narrative.

But Moore doesn't so much argue as darkly insinuate, and what we're left with is some vague sense that Bush's is somehow treacherously alligned to Saudi Arabia and the weapons industry, both of which are connected via the Carlyle Group (the Sauds -- the Bin Laden family and the House of Saud are investors, and the Group has vast defense-related holdings). Every connection is squeezed for maximum conspiratorial juice. Here's a blacked out name on Bush's national guard records! And who's this guy? Why someone who hired Dubya! Moore's so sloppy in outlining his case that, if you take this movie at face value, you'd get the overall impression that Osama launched the 9/11 attacks in order to generate profits for his family with stake in American weapons companies.

Moore likes to say that the movie's fact-checked by folks employed by The New Yorker. I believe it. But just because the facts can be verified doesn't mean they tie together in the way Moore suggests. Look, I think there's a provocative story about possible conflicts of interest that arise from the Saud/Bush relationship (two books published this year investigate this very issue), but nothing I've seen indicates that Bush's policies have been driven largely by a desire to enrich his family (and this narrative doesn't jibe with the other picture Moore paints: Bush as an unmotivated, dim-witted slacker). This is not GM, and in Moore's zeal to tar his nemesis as some sort of money-grubbing crony, he leaves a hole the size of Ground Zero in his film: the effect of ideology.

Most close observers of the Bush administration point to two glaring faults: one is an unbridled lust for power (best case is this recent piece on the Bushies' yen for anti-democratic moves by Jonathan Chait); the other, an abiding preference for faith over facts, ideology over analysis (best piece: Will Saletan here). Much of the current mess -- in the Middle East, in our diplomatic relations, the exploding budget deficit, etc. -- can be directly traced to the Bushies' idelogical blindness.

Ideology is the pink elephant in the room that Moore never talked about. The case against Iraq isn't so much that there's no weapons of mass destruction as it was an unnecessary war based primarily on idelogical pipedreams. In the mid 90s,
the Project for the New American Century, the group of neocons headed by Wolfowitz and Perle, made invading Iraq a top priority. The neocons were the intellectual architects behind the Iraq war, but I don't recall ever hearing the word "neocon" once. It's their zealous faith in their own ideas (that Iraqis will embrace American soldiers, that a pro-American democracy can be easily installed) against all empirical evidence and common sense that has led to "Mess O Potamia." How do you tackle the Bushies' failings in the War in Iraq and not address this? Why not discuss how Bush's Cold War mentality led to the administration fatally underestimating the al Qaeda threat? It's as if someone made a doc about Nixon and focused only on his cussing and anti-Semitism, completely ignoring Tricky Dick's pervasive paranoia.

And it's not just missing the point, Moore also created a false impression by following the money rather than ideology. For example, which of the following is more likely to be true?

* Was Bin Laden (a) motivated by profits or (b) by a murderous anti-Western ideology aimed at creating an Islamo-fascist empire in the Middle East?

* Is it (a) Bush that has made us so close to Saudi Arabia, or (b) have bipartisan administrations supported the House of Saud in order to keep oil prices and the region stable and not have the "Arab Street" explode?

* Why are the Saudis funding terrorist organizations and support radical Wahhabi clerics preaching anti-West hate? Is it (a) to enrich the Carlyle Group to which they have large holdings, or (b) to distract its citizenship from the corruption and decadence of the Royal Family?

* Is Israel's security (a) not at all a factor in our decision to invade Iraq or (b) a paramount consideration for the neocon cabal in their plans to democratize the Middle East?

(B) is the correct choice for all the above questions. But if you knew nothing about Middle East politics going into the movie, you'd come out thinking the answer to every question is (a).

A detailed, rigorously argued (yet still entertaining) attack on Bush's leadership may rightfully destroy the insane idea that Bush has successfully waged a war on terror. But Moore appears so stuck in his populist shtick that he can't face the fact that the most dangerous people are those who care less about money than their own wacko belief system. The fundamentalist zealots. Think of Al Qaeda, fascists, or the Commies. Add to this group the right-wing nutjobs running this country into the ground.
The best analogy might come from Bill Maher on Larry King last night: [paraphrasing]
"There are two groups of people in this country. One who guides a ship using a compass. The other wants to navigate using the entrails of a chicken. I want to be on board the ship guided by a compass." Right on. If Moore were half as sharp as Maher or Jon Stewart, Fahrenheit 9/11 might've been the nail in Bush's political coffin. Instead, it's a golden opportunity missed.

Does it matter? For some, as long as Moore's goals are laudable, who cares how he gets there? Me, I'm one of those abortion rights supporters who thinks Roe v. Wade is a bad decision. Reasoning matters. Good arguments matter, for its own sake and because not everyone is on your squad. Fahrenheit's a fun, cathartic time for us Bush-haters, but there are essays out every week that make a more compelling case against his presidency.

Why is Larry King famous?

How did Larry King become a big shot? How did his show become the first pit stop on the talk show circuit, so much so that it is the logical venue to announce a presidential bid or make a mea culpa?

Larry King might be the ugliest man on television. I don't mean that as a put-down, but to make the point that King himself must be remarkable in some way to overcome his bad looks in the most appearance-conscious of mediums. But he's a poor interviewer, and in two recent interviews with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, his cluelessness makes it almost embarrassing to watch. King simply didn't get the Onion-type deadpan jokes that Stewart threw out, and tried to ask follow-up questions to obviously absurd statements. Maher makes his jokes slightly more obvious, but King still didn't know what to do with the Smug One's politically incorrect provocations. The man is simply overmatched out there. Was he good at one time? Or is he just the Liz Smith of cable talk shows?

Also, an alert reader notified me that yesterday marked the first year anniversary of Pigs & Battleships' launch. And all it has cost me are about 200 billable hours and a lot of headaches.