That Old Feeling: The Year in Docu-politics

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Liberals had a dream about movies and politics this year. They thought that the mass audience would see a film, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and be touched by its message. They might also sample the half-dozen other political documentaries that itemize the case for the prosecution of the government in power. And on Nov. 2, they would march to the polls, possibly in Moore’s trademark cap and overalls, and vote George Bush out of office.

As the writer of TIME’s cover story on the film, I had a close-up view of the “Fahrenheit” phenomenon. In its first weekend, June 23-25, it grossed more ($23.9 million) than any other traditional documentary. It went on to earn $220 million worldwide, with another $100 million expected in DVD sales. But Moore’s intention was not to make a bundle. He wanted “Fahrenheit” to be the film that defeated Bush.

Liberals were right that a movie could mirror the angry face of the 2004 electorate. They just got the wrong movie. For the answer to that riddle, stick around.



BE LIKE MIKE VS. BERATE MIKE

There’s no questioning the impact of “Fahrenheit.” The week before it opened, the film received a unique blurb: a condemnation from a former U.S. President. George H.W. Bush denounced the movie as “a vicious personal attack on our son” and labeled its director “a slimeball.” And four days before the election, Osama bin Laden, in a televised address, referenced the film’s famous scene — of President George W. Bush, in a Florida school room, flummoxed by a whispered word of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center — by charging that Bush “was more interested in listening to the child’s story about the goat rather than worry about what was happening to the Towers.”

More important, this scrappy little Bush-whacker lured audiences to a movie that made them (gasp!) think, and maybe even act. Leeching instantly into the national and international consciousness, “Fahrenheit” stoked angry debates about life-and-death issues.

The debate spilled from TV talk shows to the movie and video screen. Popular movies often inspire imitations; that’s Hollywood’s version of brand appropriation, also known as stealing. But how many films have, within three months, inspired three movies denouncing it?

The first was a Moore-style stalking documentary, “Michael Moore Hates America,” whose quixotic auteur, Michael Wilson, got a lot of press last summer. The film was finally unveiled in September at the Dallas American Film Renaissance Festival, where one reviewer, Brian Orndorf of FilmJerk.com, called it “a shockingly amateurish production....making an absolute ass of director and star Michael Wilson.”

Marginally more professional was “Fahrenhype 9/11,” narrated by ex-Leftie haranguer Ron Silver and co-written by tabloid scandal-magnet Dick Morris. This flabby, flailing enterprise pokes some of the same holes in “Fahrenheit” that mainstream journalists had already spotted — and here I must join Moore in wishing aloud that these journalists had been half as resourceful in challenging the WMD claims of Bush-Cheney-Powell-Rumsfeld — while padding the rest out with malice, fat jokes and campaign speeches for the Republican ticket.

I haven’t seen the third broadside, “Celsius 41/11: The Temperature at Which the Brain...Begins to Die,” made by Lionel Chetwynd, a documentarian whose work isn’t exclusively right-wing (one of his films is sympathetic to blacklisted Communist screenwriter Carl Foreman). I did research its box office take: $93,000.

Indeed, one supple irony is that even those who liked “Fahrenhype” and “Celsius” were obliged to see Moore’s film in order to bury it. The Swift Boat commercials may have brought down John Kerry; the anti-Moore movies simply enriched Moore. As the director realized. The week “Fahrenheit” opened, he was on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and said, “If there’s any right-wing groups listening tonight, please keep doing this.”



THE AGIT-DOCS

The left-field victory of “Fahrenheit” told moviegoers that a non-fiction film could make them laugh and cry. It also energized the documentary community, which is reflexively and almost unanimously left-wing. (To my knowledge, there is simply no right-wing political documentary, unless you count “Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s hypnotic record of the Sixth Nazi Congress.) Moore had given the film industry’s poor, scrappy cousins a shot at the movie mainstream.

Together, the year’s fistful of contentious new political films formed a burgeoning non-fiction genre: the agit-doc. They ranged from specifically anti-Dubya tracts like “Bush’s Brain” (about Presidential Advisor Karl Rove) and “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War” (military and intelligence nabobs deconstructing the Bush war rationale) to “The Hunting of the President” (detailing the Right’s long campaign to destroy Bill Clinton). They covered the media’s coverage of Iraq in “Control Room” (a sympathetic look at the Arab news channel Al Jazeera during Operation Iraqi Freedom) and “Outfoxed” (a searing attack on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel).. The genre could expand to embrace “The Corporation,” a scholarly, skeptical essay on multinational capitalism. All these films tried to share a bit of the spotlight in the “Fahrenheit” glare. And hoped to get some collateral damning from the attacks aimed at Moore.

Moore’s Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” established the agit-doc tone, which mixes sober condemnation with japish wit. The approach was part “Democracy Now” (Amy Goodman’s low-rent, high-IQ newscast on radio and TV), part “The Daily Show,” which since 9/11 has become the Left’s CNN. Jon Stewart has made the President is an easy figure of fun. But the agit-docs aimed to nail Dubya for crimes graver than speaking English as a second language. They viewed Bush and his closest advisors as Pirates of the Constitution, exploiting the national trauma over 9/11 to pursue an impertinent and fatal Middle East adventure.

At other times, in other elections, liberals might stew morosely and withdraw. Not in 2004. First the Left got angry at itself for letting the White House slip away, then it firmly resolved not to let it happen again. So the non-fiction film unit of the progressive movement flooded movie and computer screens with talking points for Kerry voters and fence-sitters alike.

This year’s documentaries had a lot in common. Often they began in a sense of awed outrage. (“Was it all a dream?” asks “Fahrenheit.” “How did this happen?” demands “Bush’s Brain.”) They attempted to demolish the opposition’s arguments and actions with news clips and expert rebuttal. To prove this isn’t just partisan nit-picking but a matter of mortal consequence, the anti-Bush films went simultaneously for the heart and the throat, depicting the casualties of war: interviews with the families of U.S. soldiers — or, in the case of “Control Room,” Iraqi civilians — killed during the invasion and occupation. (Taking a cue from the enemy, “Fahrenhype” also had interviews with soldiers back from Iraq. They said they were honored to have served their country.)

Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room” got its power from its intimacy. Half the time it’s in the Iraq theater of war with Al Jazeera reporters like the mammothly charming Hassan Ibrahim, who has a respectful running dialogue with Marine Capt. Josh Rushing, a fellow so appealingly earnest in a tough job — explaining the U.S. invasion to journalists — that he would be the hero of any other film. (Rushing resigned his commission this year, joining the Veterans’ antiwar brigade Operation Truth and saying of the Administration’s purported evidence of Saddam’s WMDs, “I felt personally duped.”) In the other half, the film focuses on the station’s headquarters in Qatar, where its program director, Samir Khader, rails eloquently at U.S. media, then adds, “Mind you, if I were offered a job at Fox News, I’d take it.”

Donald Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera “the media arm of Osama bin Laden” and accused it of faking footage of wounded civilians. Yet the personnel, many of them BBC veterans, see themselves as introducing reportorial objectivity to a region unused to it. And when an Iraqi woman stands in front of cratered ruins in the first days of the war and shouts, “Welcome to my home, Mr. Bush... where is your humanity?”, the emotion certainly feels real.



MOVIESON.ORG

“Fahrenheit” was both an event and a fluke. Moore made it, and sold it, with a combination of indefatigable ingenuity and churlish charisma. He, not Bush, was the star at the movie’s center. And he wasn’t only angry; he was also funny. That’s docu-tainment.

Moore’s success was not contagious. When the other agit-docs were released in theaters, only “Control Room” did any business — about $2.6 million. But theatrical release is just the gravy for agit-docs; DVD is the meat. The Friday before the election, on amazon.com’s best-seller list, “Fahrenheit” was 9th, and “Control Room,” “Outfoxed” and “Uncovered” were all in the top 100. Long before “Uncovered” played in movie houses, a shorter version of the film sold more than 100,000 units through moveon.org. The website, a prime galvanizer of anti-Bush fulmination and fund-raising, has helped peddle other documentaries. It became a new kind of independent film distribution network: movieson.org.

Of the anti-Bush docs, “Uncovered” is the least cinematic (mostly talking heads), the least hype-happy and thus the most plausible. News clips present the Administration’s arguments for the War, and two dozen diplomats, analysts and investigators pick them to pieces. They are presented as career men and women devoted to government service and outraged that Bush’s people could twist the facts to fit a pre-conceived scheme. My only problem with it: these very reasonable, judicious folks from the State Department and the CIA are the same breed — sometimes the same people — who helped bungle U.S. policy in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and a few other hot spots of the 90s. With their track record, any Administration might have been skeptical of their advice on Osama and Saddam.

Two of the agit-docs trace the Bush team’s hardball style back to tactics employed in earlier campaigns. “Bush’s Brain,” directed by Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob, dips into Texas history to clinch its four-part thesis: that the cherub-faced Rove has run some demonic campaigns, that some of his low-road strategies won George Bush the governor’s mansion and the White House, that Rove is a dominant force in the President’s policies (Moore has called Bush “Karl Rove’s finger puppet”) and that he’s been behind some of the Bush team’s sleazier escapades, like the racial slurs against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary and the outing of a cia operative married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Well, maybe. The witnesses offer less evidence than suspicions, leaving Bushophobes to connect the dots from a very suggestive pattern.

“The Hunting of the President,” co-directed by Nickolas Perry and FOB #1 Harry Thomason, concentrated on the long-running campaign to ruin Clinton, first in Arkansas, then in the White House. The film revved into high dudgeon and stayed there, spicing the allegations of dirty tricks with obtrusively cute inserts from old movies. All that visual noise allowed it to tiptoe past the acknowledgment that, however heinous the methods of Clinton’s enemies, most of the sexual dirt they shoveled was based in fact.

Every movie needs a star, and “Hunting” finds one in Susan McDougal, the Clinton friend persecuted for her involvement in the Whitewater real estate deal; she is poised relating the charges, all too human recalling the price she paid for them (three years in prison). But all the films make canny use of government professionals, some of whom show up so frequently they amount to an agit-doc rep company. Featured status goes to repentant Republicans: David Brock in “The Hunting of the President,” former Rove campaign partner Joe Weaver in “Bush’s Brain,” arms inspector Scott Ritter and Nixon counsel John Dean in “Uncovered.” All but Weaver have chosen a very contemporary form of penance for their sins: they have written, and assiduously promoted, books on the venality of the current Republican-in-Chief.

Even “The Corporation,” a fascinating lecture-epic whose main aim is to prove that the phrase business ethics is an oxymoron, uses some familiar faces: it begins with a quote from George W. Bush and ends with a call to arms by Michael Moore. “The curse for me,” Moore says in the film, “has been the fact that in making these documentary films, I’ve seen that they actually can impact change. So I’m just compelled to keep making them.”



MIKE’S PASSION, MEL’S RESURRECTION

The best-laid plans of Mike and his men, and the rest of the bury-Bush contingent, went wrong. A movie can’t change events and attitudes; it reflects them. And that can be seen by the relative impact of the two big out-of-nowhere hits of 2004: “Fahrenheit” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

As it happens, the tone and content of these films neatly bisected the mood of this year’s electorate. Moore’s documentary was angry, skeptical, wide-ranging, skipping from topic to topic, using comedy and sarcasm to convey moral rage; its hero was a grungy fat guy who ambushed his adversaries. Mel Gibson’s docudrama was stolid, bloody, humorless, remorseless, sticking to its micro-subject with macro implications, staying obsessively on point; its hero was a stern thin man who endured scourging and calumny in order to fulfill His mission. In other words, Moore embodied what the Right saw as Kerry’s base; Jesus incarnated what the Right saw as their hero.

Both movies were astonishingly successful at the box office. The worldwide gross of “Fahrenheit” was more than 36 million times its $6 million budget (yikes! someone’s getting rich off this movie!), whereas “The Passion” took in some 20 million times its $30 million budget (Mel was already rich). But for our purposes, the salient stats are North American revenue. “Fahrenheit”: just over $119 million. “The Passion”: just over $370 million — more than three times as much — to rank ninth on the domestic list of all-time money earners. (To be sure, constantly rising ticket prices skew this list. Interestingly, in Box Office Mojo’s ranking of real-dollar all-timers, “The Passion,” at #51, is only the fifth top-grossing religious epic, following the 1956 “The Ten Commandments” at #5, the 1959 “Ben-Hur” at 13, “The Robe” at 43 and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” at 47.)

Both “The Passion” and “Fahrenheit” benefitted from the curiosity factor, once media hype and early box office numbers attracted audiences beyond the movies’ cores. But the core was important. Conservative Christians were enormously important in making “The Passion” the hit it was. They got the faithful to the theaters. And in November, the same churches and social groups got the faithful to the polls.



OSCARS AND GROUCHES

From different sides, “Fahrenheit” and “The Passion” proved that, in an era of depressingly trivial pop culture, movies can matter. I hope official Hollywood gets the message about these two message movies. Let’s see if the Motion Picture Academy takes Moore’s dare — since, with his usual hellacious chutzpah, he refused to submit it in the documentary category — and nominates it for Best Picture. In fact, if Academy members have even a pair of cojones among them, they’ll nominate both “Fahrenheit” “The Passion” for Best Picture of 2004. Think of it: the outraged Left vs. the religious Right doing battle in Beverly Hills, as did all year in the long slog up to Election Day.

Two guesses. One: “Fahrenheit” will be a Best Picture finalist. Hollywood was Kerry Country; it loves a liberal king and, even more, a kingmaker. Two: no “Passion,” no way. The reflexively liberal Hollywood elders hated the movie (usually without seeing it) before it opened — that has to be why they refused to distribute it — and they hated it more when it became an indie blockbuster. So Gibson has as much chance of getting a top nomination from the Academy as Moore did of getting a “Fahrenheit” screening at the White House.

Liberals, who dared to dream before election day, turned grouchy the day after. But they know that the message of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and its agit-doc brethren didn’t go stale on Nov. 3. With Karl Rove fully validated as the King-maker — he got his man the popular vote this time — “Bush’s Brain” is more relevant than before. Moore has been planning a documentary on health care, which should be ever more timely as the Administration pushes its privatization angle on Social Security. Of course Moore and his fellow Savonarolas will once again be preaching to the choir. But as “Fahrenheit 9/11” indicated, and “The Passion of the Christ” proved, a choir can be in the tens of millions. And watch out, rest-of-America. Neither choir is likely to shut up.