Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Tell It, Brother . . . Amen
Like the old-time movie reviews used to say, you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cheer, at Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. And you'll be astounded, outraged, and praying that you never have to hear John Ashcroft sing again.

Some of the biggest laughs in the film come from the way Moore uses music to punctuate and comment on the footage. (If there's a soundtrack album, it's going to be great.) The brief segment on how Bush sold fear to the American people after 9/11, featuring an unintentionally hilarious promotional film for a personal "safe room" and a Today show interview with a guy trying to market a new safety device, is probably the funniest part of the film. But once the war in Iraq begins, the fun is mostly over. Moore mixes combat footage with soldier interviews, and this is where the film earns its R rating. Soldiers explain how they can crank up music on their headphones when going into battle, and one describes his favorite song. When Moore plays the song over graphic footage of combat casualties, it feels deeply obscene. Finally, toward the end, what feels at first like a veer off the subject to life in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, becomes the film's emotional heart. But Moore being Moore, he ends the film with one more humorous jab at Bush, and Neil Young's great "Rockin' in the Free World" over the final credits.

A friend who saw the film over the weekend remarked on the amount of audience participation at her screening--shouts of agreement and so forth, like Moore was preaching a gospel sermon. Not so much at mine--apart from the laughs, there was a sprinkling of applause when our representative, Tammy Baldwin, appeared briefly, and Britney Spears actually got hissed. And here in Madison, Moore is preaching to the largely converted, many of whom are eager to get the message. The 7PM show tonight was already sold out this afternoon. Nationwide, the film grossed more in its first weekend than Bowling for Columbine did in its whole run. Plus, it's showing on only about 800 screens across the country--in major metros and places like Berkeley, Austin, Ann Arbor, and Madison, no doubt--not like the 2,500 for a typical top-grossing film. It's going into wider release this weekend, and I am guessing it will keep up the momentum for another week or two.

I've been avoiding the reviews so I could come to the film as uncontaminated by other peoples' opinions as possible. In the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein sums up the early press reaction to the film, noting the oddity of Fox News and the New York Post holding back while ABC and NBC have gone after the film for "inaccuracies," all minor and more in the realm of disagreements over interpretation than factual error. And a lot of the criticism of the film, especially from TV networks--apart from blanket condemnations from right-wingers of the film's very right to exist--is going to center on these matters of interpretation, these details. And if some of them could be interpreted differently, so be it. The people who criticize the film ought try to explain the grief of the Michigan woman who lost her son at Karbala. Tell us why her suffering is OK, why she should endure it, how she should find comfort for it. And then tell the rest of us.

Will the movie change any minds? With all the wingnuts braying about it as evil propaganda, clearly they are afraid of just that. I walked out behind a group of young people this afternoon who were surprised at the labyrinthine nature of the Bush family's involvement with the Saudis, and I'd like to think I was witnessing a small political awakening. Fact is, it probably won't take too many similar awakenings to swing the election. I saw a survey somewhere in the last day or so that says something like 44 percent of people have made up their minds irrevocably to vote for Kerry and 43 percent for Bush, which means 87 percent of us are already set. So maybe the wingnuts are onto something. For once, let's hope they're right.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably going to see the movie already, and you don't need me to tell you to go. But go.

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