9/11 at the Toronto Film Festival

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Nathan (L) and Tomas Young in a still from the documentary film, Body of War

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, marked the halfway point of the 25th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Screenings continued through midday, then were canceled to allow the public and the critics, many of them from the U.S., to mourn the deaths and digest the meaning of that day. In every year since, TIFF has commemorated 9/11 with politically pointed films — on the Iraq occupation, the Bush Administration, America's stooped standing in the world — beginning in 2002 with 11'09"01, in which 11 directors each made a film of 11 min. 9 sec. provoked by the events of the year before.


For this edition of TIFF, one day was not enough to contain all the 9/11-related movies — not with Hollywood finally getting the Iraq bug. Two American fiction films, Brian De Palma's Redacted and Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, both based on true incidents of violence involving U.S. soldiers, have been among the festival's most strident talking points. Gavin Hood's Rendition tossed Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep into a story of U.S.-condoned torture of a terror suspect. But documentary films are the main entertainment conduit for leftist antiwar sentiment (the right wing has talk radio), and TIFF 31 has entries from two men with the proper pedigree: Phil Donahue, the liberal who pioneered the issue-based TV talk show, and Michael Moore, the political activist and nonpareil docu-comic.


October 2004 was an important time for Moore. It was the last month of the Presidential campaign, which would serve as the electorate's first real referendum on the war, and the first month of the DVD release of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which had earned an astounding $119 million at the domestic box office. (He has made three of the five top-grossing docs of all time. It's Moore, Gore and the penguins.) So to get out the youth vote for Democratic standard bearer John Kerry, and maybe move a few units of Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore went on the Slacker Uprising Tour, visiting 62 cities, mostly college campuses, in 45 days. His rollicking new movie, shot and edited by Bernardo Loyola, is the hagiographic record of that tour.

Captain Mike, which played to two packed houses of Toronto Mooreomaniacs, mixes the forms of a rock-concert movie (with reaction shots of adoring fans, including one woman holding a "Hug me, Michael" sign) and Triumph of the Will (the star lands in a city, meets the locals, attends a rally with guest speakers, then wows the crowd himself). Among the guests are Celeste Zappala, the outspoken mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, and a cadre of antiwar diplomats. At some venues, famous musicians are on hand: Eddie Vedder, Joan Baez, Steve Earle and Tom Morello, ex of Rage against the Machine.

But Moore is the scruffy, paunchy, bespectacled rock star here. And unlike most performers, he has enough fresh material to make each of the appearances included in the movie seem as if he was giving a new speech every night. His jolly, intimate style sells every zinger to audiences who would have bought his line anyway. He's also an ad-lib adept. When one clutch of Catholic protesters recites the Our Father and Hail, Mary aloud during a rally, Moore asks them, "You're not gonna do the whole rosary, are ya?" and then the more pertinent, "What did Jesus bomb?" The movie leaves little doubt that if Kerry had been half the campaigner Moore is, he'd be in the White House, not the political outhouse, today.

You may have heard how the 2004 election came out. Bush, who lost the popular count by a half million votes in 2000, won by 3 million the next time around. He also took virtually every state Moore campaigned in. So the only suspense in the movie is how Moore will somehow claim victory. He does it, at the end, by noting that young people, his target audience, voted in record numbers, and that they were the only age group to go for Kerry. That's impressive, Pyrrhically, until you recall that Moore's stated purpose in making Fahrenheit 9/11 was to end the Bush regime. Mission not accomplished.

Many people who share Moore's views are suspicious of his relentless self-promotion. The message of the tour, beyond the denunciation of the Bush Administration, is that Captain Mike is America. I'd be curious to know whether Moore funneled all or part of his speaking fees (a reported $50,000 at one venue) to antiwar charities or Democratic coffers. And now he has another source of revenue: this movie, which may receive some theatrical exposure before it's released on DVD.

But this was a rock concert film capped by a live performance, because Moore was in the house! And he couldn't find a more receptive crowd than Toronto. The audience at the public screening I attended was every bit as rapturous as the ones in the movie; and when Harvey Weinstein, the indie mogul titan who's made a few enemies over the years, stood up, he too was greeted with all cheers, no boos. For Moore's part, he's given the love back to Canadians at least since 1995, when he made his only fiction film, the war satire Canadian Bacon, here. He shot his TV series The Awful Truth in the Great White North, and visited Canada to make admiring contrasts to the U.S. in Bowling for Columbine and Sicko. "By now I'm sure you're tired of my overappreciation of Canada," he told the audience. "But again I thank you."

In the post-film Q&A, he struck a modest note about watching the movie with them: "When you look like me it's not easy to see yourself blown up to 40 ft." He said he might not repeat the experiment next year, citing six attempted physical attacks on him during the Slacker Tour. He declared himself "not overly thrilled" about the current Democratic Presidential candidates and floated the notion of a Gore-Obama ticket. He reminded the crowd of the Democrats' knack for clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, adding, "We should be prepared to say the words 'President Giuliani.'"

That shut the crowd up.


It's easy to convince a people to go to war, one political leader wrote. "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifist for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country." Robert Byrd declaimed that quote to the Senate, as Congress was debating whether to authorize the President to go to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Then Byrd read the source: Hermann Goering, 1934.

In October of 2002, when most lawmakers were rushing to get their votes in so their constituents would not denounce them as pacifists and vote them out of office, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) wondered at the timing. "Three weeks before election seems to be an odd time to be authorizing war." While many senators (including Kerry) parroted bogus stats supplied by Iraq "experts" on the imminent danger Saddam posed to the U.S., Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) counseled caution: "There is no victory in the destruction of one tyrant while breeding 10,000 terrorists." John McCain, a Vietnam POW for five years, voted for the war; but a few used Vietnam as a warning from history. "You're sentencing thousands of Americans to sure death," declared Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal.). "Some of you did that [when the Senate authorized the Vietnam engagement in 1964], and you can look at the 50,000 names on the wall down on the Mall. Don't do it again."

In the 60s, America's participation in the Vietnam war had a readymade counter-insurgency: the young people who might be drafted to serve in it. This time, the most articulate opponents are not the young people eligible to go to war. It's the ones who came back. The ex-GIs who now serve in antiwar groups are not natural radicals, not lifelong pacifists. They love their dogs. They love their wives (and wish, the ones most severely wounded, that they could make love to them). And they luvvvv the gung-ho war movie Top Gun. They just think the Iraq occupation is a shame on our conscience, a killing field for their buddies. They believe they have the right to speak up, and that the rest of us have the obligation to listen.

Body of War, directed by docu-doyenne Ellen Spiro and Donahue, intercuts the 2002 war debate with the postwar life of Tomas Young, a soldier who was paralyzed with a shattered spine within a week of arriving in Iraq. Now, after months recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital, Young is back home with his fiancee, annoyed by the mundane aspects of confinement: how, constantly, "my body shows how much it disagrees with me." He's about to be married, and is worried that his leaky bowels will embarrass him during the ceremony. At times, this gentle, articulate guy shows the pressure of a film crew's crowding presence. "You wanna film my fridge?" he asks Spiro. "What are we on, MTV Cribs now?"

Young is not just a poignant survivor; he is a persuasive proselytizer. He speaks at rallies with a quiet authority seared in experience. And because he had comrades killed in Iraq, he tells Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes that he'd protest the war even if he hadn't been paralyzed: "I would still speak out — although I probably wouldn't have as firm a leg to stand on." Then, instantly correcting himself: "Or chair to sit in." The contrast of the Congress' surrender to political dictates and Young's heroism, in Iraq and back home, makes this superb documentary almost unbearably moving — as pathetic as it is inspiring.

Donahue got involved when Young said he wanted to meet Ralph Nader, and Donahue, a Nader friend, came along. But the political hero of Body of War is Byrd, nine-term Virginia Senator and, in his 20s, an Exalted Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Senator and the soldier might seem to have little in common, they are bonded by their opposition to the occupation, and their meeting serves an apt climax to the film. Byrd is near 90 now, and he walks with difficulty; as Young says, "I see we've both got some mobility issues." Together they read the names of the senators who in Oct. 2002 voted against authorizing the war — "the immortal 23," Byrd calls them.

In the ears of the other 77, Byrd's call back then must ring in their ears like the angry voice of a conscience ignored. "Wait!" he shouted in the echoing chamber. "Slow down! Don't rush this through."

The ghosts of 9/11 still stir.