[lit-ideas] NYTimes.com Article: Michael Moore's Candid Camera

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  • Date: Sun, 23 May 2004 12:44:38 -0400 (EDT)

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Michael Moore's Candid Camera

May 23, 2004


"But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and
how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or
what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's, it's not relevant.
So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like
that? And watch him suffer." 
- Barbara Bush on "Good Morning America," 
March 18, 2003

SHE needn't have worried. Her son wasn't suffering. In one
of the several pieces of startling video exhibited for the
first time in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," we catch a
candid glimpse of President Bush some 36 hours after his
mother's breakfast TV interview - minutes before he makes
his own prime-time TV address to take the nation to war in
Iraq. He is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. A
makeup woman is doing his face. And Mr. Bush is having a
high old time. He darts his eyes about and grins, as if he
were playing a peek-a-boo game with someone just
off-camera. He could be a teenager goofing with his buds to
relieve the passing tedium of a haircut. 

"In your wildest dreams you couldn't imagine Franklin
Roosevelt behaving this way 30 seconds before declaring
war, with grave decisions and their consequences at stake,"
said Mr. Moore in an interview before his new documentary's
premiere at Cannes last Monday. "But that may be giving him
credit for thinking that the decisions were grave." As we
spoke, the consequences of those decisions kept coming. The
premiere of "Fahrenheit 9/11" took place as news spread of
the assassination of a widely admired post-Saddam Iraqi
leader, Ezzedine Salim, blown up by a suicide bomber just a
hundred yards from the entrance to America's "safe"
headquarters, the Green Zone, in Baghdad. 

"Fahrenheit 9/11" will arrive soon enough at your local
cineplex - there's lots of money to be made - so discount
much of the squabbling en route. Disney hasn't succeeded in
censoring Mr. Moore so much as in enhancing his stature as
a master provocateur and self-promoter. And the White
House, which likewise hasn't a prayer of stopping this
film, may yet fan the p.r. flames. "It's so outrageously
false, it's not even worth comment," was last week's
blustery opening salvo by Dan Bartlett, the White House
communications director. New York's Daily News reported
that Republican officials might even try to use the Federal
Election Commission to shut the film down. That would be
the best thing to happen to Michael Moore since Charlton
Heston granted him an interview. 

Whatever you think of Mr. Moore, there's no question he's
detonating dynamite here. From a variety of sources -
foreign journalists and broadcasters (like Britain's
Channel Four), freelancers and sympathetic American TV
workers who slipped him illicit video - he supplies
war-time pictures that have been largely shielded from our
view. Instead of recycling images of the planes hitting the
World Trade Center on 9/11 once again, Mr. Moore can revel
in extended new close-ups of the president continuing to
read "My Pet Goat" to elementary school students in Florida
for nearly seven long minutes after learning of the attack.
Just when Abu Ghraib and the savage beheading of Nicholas
Berg make us think we've seen it all, here is yet another
major escalation in the nation-jolting images that have
become the battleground for the war about the war. 

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is not the movie Moore watchers, fans or
foes, were expecting. (If it were, the foes would find it
easier to ignore.) When he first announced this project
last year after his boorish Oscar-night diatribe against
Mr. Bush, he described it as an exposé of the connections
between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties. But that story
has been so strenuously told elsewhere - most notably in
Craig Unger's best seller, "House of Bush, House of Saud" -
that it's no longer news. Mr. Moore settles for a brisk
recap in the first of his film's two hours. And,
predictably, he stirs it into an over-the-top, at times
tendentious replay of a Bush hater's greatest hits:
Katherine Harris, the Supreme Court, Harken Energy, AWOL in
Alabama, the Carlyle Group, Halliburton, the lazy Crawford
vacation of August 2001, the Patriot Act. But then the
movie veers off in another direction entirely. Mr. Moore
takes the same hairpin turn the country has over the past
14 months and crash-lands into the gripping story that is
unfolding in real time right now. 

Wasn't it just weeks ago that we were debating whether we
should see the coffins of the American dead and whether Ted
Koppel should read their names on "Nightline"? In
"Fahrenheit 9/11," we see the actual dying, of American
troops and Iraqi civilians alike, with all the ripped flesh
and spilled guts that the violence of war entails. (If
Steven Spielberg can simulate World War II carnage in
"Saving Private Ryan," it's hard to argue that Mr. Moore
should shy away from the reality in a present-day war.) We
also see some of the 4,000-plus American casualties: those
troops hidden away in clinics at Walter Reed and at
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Ky.,
where they try to cope with nerve damage and multiple
severed limbs. They are not silent. They talk about their
pain and their morphine, and they talk about betrayal. "I
was a Republican for quite a few years," one soldier says
with an almost innocent air of bafflement, "and for some
reason they conduct business in a very dishonest way." 

Of course, Mr. Moore is being selective in what he chooses
to include in his movie; he's a polemicist, not a
journalist. But he implicitly raises the issue that much of
what we've seen elsewhere during this war, often under the
label of "news," has been just as subjectively edited.
Perhaps the most damning sequence in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is
the one showing American troops as they ridicule hooded
detainees in a holding pen near Samara, Iraq, in December
2003. A male soldier touches the erection of a prisoner
lying on a stretcher underneath a blanket, an intimation of
the sexual humiliations that were happening at Abu Ghraib
at that same time. Besides adding further corroboration to
Seymour Hersh's report that the top command has sanctioned
a culture of abuse not confined to a single prison or a
single company or seven guards, this video raises another
question: why didn't we see any of this on American TV
before "60 Minutes II"? 

Don Van Natta Jr. of The New York Times reported in March
2003 that we were using hooding and other inhumane
techniques at C.I.A. interrogation centers in Afghanistan
and elsewhere. CNN reported on Jan. 20, after the Army
quietly announced its criminal investigation into prison
abuses, that "U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for
photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." And
there the matter stood for months, even though, as we know
now, soldiers' relatives with knowledge of these incidents
were repeatedly trying to alert Congress and news
organizations to the full panorama of the story. 

Mr. Moore says he obtained his video from an independent
foreign journalist embedded with the Americans. "We've had
this footage in our possession for two months," he says. "I
saw it before any of the Abu Ghraib news broke. I think
it's pretty embarrassing that a guy like me with a high
school education and with no training in journalism can do
this. What the hell is going on here? It's pathetic." 

We already know that politicians in denial will dismiss the
abuse sequence in Mr. Moore's film as mere partisanship.
Someone will surely echo Senator James Inhofe's Abu Ghraib
complaint that "humanitarian do-gooders" looking for human
rights violations are maligning "our troops, our heroes" as
they continue to fight and die. But Senator Inhofe and his
colleagues might ask how much they are honoring soldiers
who are overextended, undermanned and bereft of a coherent
plan in Iraq. Last weekend The Los Angeles Times reported
that for the first time three Army divisions, more than a
third of its combat troops, are so depleted of equipment
and skills that they are classified "unfit to fight." In
contrast to Washington's neglect, much of "Fahrenheit 9/11"
turns out to be a patriotic celebration of the heroic
American troops who have been fighting and dying under
these and other deplorable conditions since President
Bush's declaration of war. 

In particular, the movie's second hour is carried by the
wrenching story of Lila Lipscomb, a flag-waving,
self-described "conservative Democrat" from Mr. Moore's
hometown of Flint, Mich., whose son, Sgt. Michael Pedersen,
was killed in Iraq. We watch Mrs. Lipscomb, who by her own
account "always hated" antiwar protesters, come undone with
grief and rage. As her extended family gathers around her
in the living room, she clutches her son's last letter home
and reads it aloud, her shaking voice and hand contrasting
with his precise handwriting on lined notebook paper. A
good son, Sergeant Pedersen thanks his mother for sending
"the bible and books and candy," but not before writing of
the president: "He got us out here for nothing whatsoever.
I am so furious right now, Mama." 

By this point, Mr. Moore's jokes, some of them sub-par
retreads of Jon Stewart's riffs about the coalition of the
willing, have vanished from "Fahrenheit 9/11." So, pretty
much, has Michael Moore himself. He told me that Harvey
Weinstein of Miramax had wanted him to insert more of
himself into the film - "you're the star they're coming to
see" - but for once he exercised self-control, getting out
of the way of a story that is bigger than he is. "It
doesn't need me running around with my exclamation points,"
he said. He can't resist underlining one moral at the end,
but by then the audience, crushed by the needlessness of
Mrs. Lipscomb's loss, is ready to listen. Speaking of
America's volunteer army, Mr. Moore concludes: "They serve
so that we don't have to. They offer to give up their lives
so that we can be free. It is, remarkably, their gift to
us. And all they ask for in return is that we never send
them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary.
Will they ever trust us again?" 

"Fahrenheit 9/11" doesn't push any Vietnam analogies, but
you may find one in a montage at the start, in which a
number of administration luminaries (Cheney, Rice,
Ashcroft, Powell) in addition to the president are seen
being made up for TV appearances. It's reminiscent of
Richard Avedon's photographic portrait of the Mission
Council, the American diplomats and military figures
running the war in Saigon in 1971. But at least those
subjects were dignified. In Mr. Moore's candid-camera
portraits, a particularly unappetizing spectacle is
provided by Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of both the
administration's Iraqi fixation and its doctrine of
"preventive" war. We watch him stick his comb in his mouth
until it is wet with spit, after which he runs it through
his hair. This is not the image we usually see of the
deputy defense secretary, who has been ritualistically
presented in the press as the most refined of intellectuals
- a guy with, as Barbara Bush would have it, a beautiful

Like Mrs. Bush, Mr. Wolfowitz hasn't let that mind be
overly sullied by body bags and such - to the point where
he underestimated the number of American deaths in Iraq by
more than 200 in public last month. No one would ever
accuse Michael Moore of having a beautiful mind. Subtleties
and fine distinctions are not his thing. That matters very
little, it turns out, when you have a story this ugly and
this powerful to tell. 



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