Thursday, July 08, 2004

War Stories

UPDATE: EuroSavant has a summary of European media coverage of "Fahrenheit 9/11", including a point-by-point evaluation of the more outrageous claims. This is a more detailed analysis than I've attempted to do, from diverse perspectives. Worth reading.

EDIT: I've realized I was confused about who made "Control Room."

All right, I finally saw Fahrenheit 9/11. Now I want to talk about how people talk about the war.

First, Michael Moore. He really made three movies here. At first glance, you think he's covering the 2000 presidential elections, the September 11 attacks, and the Iraq War. The only element which really unites these stories is their anti-hero, Bush. But for the main character, Bush doesn't actually get many lines. Nor do we get to see him do anything, in particular, not even anything embarrassing (and there is no shortage of footage of Bush embarrassing himself. Moore gets some credit for resisting the temptation to run a blooper reel.)

As it turns out, the "election" portion isn't about the election, but about Bush's money. There isn't any mention of recounts or Supreme Court testimony or analysis of margins of error or mention of the statewide races that were also, almost, too close to call. Instead we get a bunch of stuff about the oil companies Bush has been involved with, the friends he has in high places (including the Florida election officials and the wealthy Bin Laden family) and the vacations he took, and his military duty-dodging.

In the same way, "Iraq war" section isn't about the Iraq war so much as it's about class and the military. It's about Flint, Michigan (I bet the Michigan tourism board would like to have Moore shot) and this woman there who loses her son, and about how rich guys like those in Congress don't have kids in the service. The "September 11th" part is really about the whole fear-of-terror (I personally have a terror of fear) phenomenon: orange alerts and the patriot act and the FBI spying on peace groups.

Now all of these subjects, class in the military and the culture of fear, are worth exploring, as is the Bush family's wealth, to a lesser extent, but all of this has been around for a long time. They have, really, nothing to do with the death of 3000 civilians in the World Trade Center, or 900 soldiers and ten thousand innocent Iraqis in the middle east. Both of these sections use just enough footage of people dying in Iraq and New York to break your heart. But the movie isn't about the people who died.

And that's the main problem I have with it. It seems kind of exploitive to use these incredibly emotional images, which can't fail to make conservatives and democrats alike feel sick and helpless, in the service of a political agenda. On the other hand, as evocations of the real costs of these events, which had become only symbols, these scenes are incredibly valuable. I'm glad he put them in a movie. I just wish he'd put them at the center.

The other thing I don't like are the "Gotchas" which seem to be standard operating procedure for Moore. Although there weren't that many, this time. Some scenes of Bush people being primped for the cameras. Reading the Patriot Act over an ice-cream truck megaphone. Button-holing Congressmen (man, I hate people who do that to me) and asking them to somehow force their kids into the military without acknowledging that many of these guys served in the military themselves. Showing Bush reading to the elementary school class. These are cheap shots because you can make anyone, of any ideology, look bad this way. These people react just the way you or I would. I class his heavy-handed implication that the Florida elections were rigged and that the Bushes are more loyal to Saudi Arabia than to America as cheap shots too. These charges are much too serious to be made so off-handedly, and seem to attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by human nature.

Ashcroft singing, however, is fair game.

Finally, a criticism that one of my companions made: for all his pious sentiments, Moore actually focusses most of his attention on white Americans, in the end. There aren't any interviews with Iraqis, for instance. This is something that drives me nuts about American video-journalism, in general. You never see any Iraqis in the reports from Iraq. Just the American reporter, giving you second-hand insights, with the city as a set. On the BBC, they interview people who live there. Michael Moore is just as bad as Geraldo Rivera, in this respect.

Just to make it clear, though, I agree with Michael Moore that the war was wrong, that the politics of "terror" is underhanded, and that Bush is incompetent.

Which means that on the war, at least, I disagree with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But I like Friedman much better. Friedman made a documentary of his own, called "Searching for the Roots of 9/11" which I saw on the Discovery Channel. It's been a while since I saw it, so I have less to say about it than about Michael Moore's movie, but I can tell you it did not focus on Americans. Friedman listened to the (painfully earnest) responses he got to his questions, most of which were along the lines of "Why do people hate us?" He listed in Iraq, in Indonesia (largest Muslim population in the world) and in the studios of Al Jazeera. He argued in defence of America and Israel (as Jew, he naturally has a somewhat different perspective) but argued in a different way than Moore does. He adapts his positions to provoke better arguments from his interview subjects, so they can help him see the world from their point of view. This seems much more useful than playing Gotcha.

Everyone is incredibly polite to Friedman. In contrast, all Jehane Noujaim gets in her movie "Control Room" from literally some of the same people, is sarcasm and black humor and helpless confusion and frustration and an edge of despair. The purpose of that movie is to show Americans, with whom Noujaim seems to sympathize, what the war looks like when you get up closer to it -- but still far enough away to get see the whole thing. With her, ordinary Arabs are honest instead of merely earnest. (The Americans mostly stonewall.)

Friedman was trying to see the world from this point of view -- Jehane Noujaim draws us all a picture. This is the most sincere of the three films. There is no attempt to make anyone look particularly good or particularly bad, just a lot of people who remind you of people you know, only they work at Al Jazeera, instead of your office.

They have an interesting dilemma -- they want to be an open, investigative news organization, like we have in the US or the UK. But how can they imitate US and UK news organizations, without presenting the news from a US/UK slant? It's tricky territory, and no wonder they have trouble with issues like how much blood to show, and how to alot time to people with strong or even violent opinions.

But you can't really fault Thomas Friedman and Michael Moore for not making a movie like "Control Room". They're just middle-aged white guys. Ultimately, they don't know a lot more than the rest of us about what's going on over there.


jon said...

We are trying to find good upcoming movie to take the kids this weekend. Good upcoming movie reviews are hard to find

I just stumbled onto your blog while looking. Seems to happen to me a lot since I am a knowledge mooch LOL


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Semper Fi!

Bill Adams