For whatever reason, Michael Moore’s blockbuster documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was first exposed outside the US to French-speaking audiences, opening on 7 July in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. And, as you’d probably expect, it had a Smashing Début, as stated in the title of an article in the Nouvel Observateur. It was seen by 100,000 in France on its first day of showing alone (of which 30,000 in Paris), the best opening of all time for a documentary. Still, the (unnamed) writer does give Moore’s previous work, Bowling for Columbine, greater credit for being fully researched and documented.
Le Monde’s New York correspondent, Eric Leser, goes considerably further with his exegesis of Moore’s latest film in an article entitled The Truths, Misunderstandings, and Errors of a Militant Film. For all its success, Leser asks, is Fahrenheit 9/11 built on a solid basis of facts? He then looks into this question in depth, treating several of Moore’s assertions in the film with an objectivity that many Americans might have trouble crediting to those rascally, surrender-monkey French:
- True facts: The Bush family has indeed benefited considerably from its ties with highly-placed Saudi families. “The film-producer [i.e. Moore] is on solid ground here,” Leser reports. There’s so-called “Bandar Bush,” Saudi prince; there’s the lucrative work Georege H.W. Bush has done for Saudi clients via the Carlyle Group; there’s James Bath, Bush junior’s old National Guard buddy, who arranged for investment into Bush’s old Arbusto oil company by the Bin Laden family. (This American treatment, syndicated via Knight-Ridder Newspapers, casts doubt on that last story about Arbusto, however.)
- Also true: The Bush administration’s careless neglect in the summer of 2001 about the threat of an imminent terrorist attack, especially in the face of that infamous August 6 presidential briefing. Instead, George W. Bush spent 42% of his presidential term before September 11 on vacation (calculation not from Michael Moore, but from the Washington Post).
- A doubtful assertion: As claimed in the movie, that the United States attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan primarily to ensure the construction of a natural gas pipeline for the benefit of the Texas-based company Unocal (and this would have been also for the benefit of Enron, by the way).
- Also disputable: The “special favors” nature of the evacuation of Saudis from the US immediately after the September 11 attacks. The September 11 commission reported that these flights carrying the Saudis back home almost certainly only happened once US airspace had been reopened for traffic. Furthermore, no less than one of the administration’s harshest critics, former national security adviser Richard Clarke, took the responsibility for authorizing those flights and has stated that he would do the same thing again.
- Misunderstanding: In the film Moore expressed voice-over incredulity after trying to interview an expert about Saudi Arabia in the shadow of the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., and being accosted there by a Secret Service agent. What, the Secret Service protects foreigners and not Americans? Well, as a matter of fact one of the duties of the Secret Service (in addition to combatting currency counterfeiting, did you know?) is to protect foreign embassies.
- Complete poppycock: The visions Moore presents in his film of a pre-war Iraq where families picnic, children fly kites, and all is right with the world – under the beneficent smile of Saddam Hussein, presumably, reproduced in one graphic form or another on every street-corner.
CHOOSE YOUR PROPAGANDA
All very valuable. But even more intelligent is the editorial about Moore’s latest work by Daniel Schneidermann in Libération, entitled Moore: Hard Propaganda, Soft Propaganda. Fahrenheit 9/11 really must be some sort of “must-see” film, Schneidermann remarks: the Cannes Film Festival jurors said so, and all the French media says so now. So see it he did; and he came away a little disappointed. For one thing, those famous “seven minutes” in the Florida elementary school when, after having been whispered the news about the Twin Towers attacks, Bush apparently froze in shock and continued mechanically with reading “My Pet Goat” (French linguists note: the translation of that title here is Mon ami le bouc): those aren’t seven minutes, they’ve been drastically shortened! Perhaps they really should have been the full seven minutes, Schneidermann suggests, to allow the audience to savor what they’re seeing all the more.
More substantially, however, Schneidermann finds that, in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore is fighting with both the tools and the ethos of his enemies, namely with (tools) innuendo and the cheap exploitation of emotion (cf. the use of the American mom reading her dead soldier son’s last letter home) and (ethos) a take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs attitude that itself refuses to bow to any consideration of “fair play” or Geneva Convention-equivalent. Anything is fair game, if only because the other guy started it all first.
But that last might be the most important point: the “other guy,” namely the Bush administration and indeed the entire American Establishment, did start it first. The American journalists who will accept and print anything coming out of the government without doing the most minimal fact-checking; those who swallowed uncritically the Administration’s lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and who continue to sway this way and that like charmed snakes as Attorney General Ashcroft appears at Department of Justice press conferences to warn vaguely of imminent al-Qaeda attacks and adjust the “terrorist alert level” up and down; in sum, in Schneidermann’s excellent formulation, “everything that has de-brained [décervelé] the American people and a part of the world regarding the War in Iraq – all these also were spreading propaganda, but without saying the word. Perhaps some of them didn’t even know that they were.”
Ultimately, although it’s a small consolation, Michael Moore plays hardball but makes it clear that he’s doing it – you actually don’t have to go see the film. Whereas the other side is inescapable and insidious, having pervaded most of the American government and the American media. But my own interpretation fails me here; let me quote to you from Schneidermann’s excellent last paragraph (my own translation and editing, of course):
The hard propaganda of the sharp-shooter against the soft propaganda of the system. Combat propaganda against the conspiracy of useful idiots. At least the former, flaunting itself as propaganda, allows its spectators the choice of refutation. . . . There’s hardly a newspaper, for example in France, which hasn’t brought up (and quite rightly) the factual errors of the film. In contrast, the second form of propaganda, that of the dominant media, doesn’t flaunt itself as anything. It envelopes you, it plays you like a violin, it sings with a thousand voices: ministers, experts, citizens, journalists, as Moore himself shows in his film, via judicious montages. In all, it gets around you in a manner that is all the more perverse in that the little droplets making it up don’t even know that they collectively make up a grand wave of propaganda.
MOORE TARGETS FOREIGN LEADERS, TOO
Moving on, and back to Le Monde, that newspaper also had a very interesting report on a news conference Moore held on 6 July (Michael Moore Hopes to Cause Changes in Pro-War Countries with “Fahrenheit”). One thing I need to ask right off the bat: I hadn’t heard anything about this from the British or American press. Did I somehow miss out on getting the word, or can it really be true that this is the sort of event you won’t find reported in the British or (especially) the American press?
Anyway, Moore made clear at this news conference that his target-list for “regime change” is by no means limited to George W. Bush. (Although “regime change” this November is so vitally important – and isn’t it, though? – that he won’t actually travel outside the US until after then, so as to not to divert effort from that number-one “mission.”) He blasted Australian premier John Howard, whose country after all sent a couple of thousand troops for combat in Iraq: “He at least gives the appearance of having half a brain . . . it’s really shameful.” Naturally, Moore would be very glad for Fahrenheit 9/11 to have the same kind of political effect down-under as he intends for it to have in the US. And he blasted the behavior over the war of Tony Blair, also “otherwise an intelligent man”: “That’s something science will have to explain. Maybe one day someone can examine him, put him under hypnosis.” Asked a question by a Japanese journalist, Moore blasted the Japanese government for the 550 men it has recently sent to Iraq; and he had similar unkind words (and wishes for another speedy “regime change”) for Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
ONSLAUGHT OF THE “HOLLYWOOD MACHINE”?
Note, however, that all the attendance- and money-figures attesting to Fahrenheit 9/11′s great success merely put it at the top of the history of documentaries made, not of all films, not by a long shot. Indeed, the Nouvel Observateur also reported on developments during the film’s second week in France; as the title to its article indicates, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ Dethroned by “Spiderman 2″. And that newsmagazine is actually inclined to see this as something deliberate, namely (as it puts it) “the Hollywood machine” quickly coming up with another one of its expensive, seductive blockbusters (filming costs: around $200 million) to win audiences away from all that serious stuff and put Moore’s film back in its rightful subordinate place.
This sets the stage for a remarkable article in another French newsmagazine, L’Express (Hollywood, How Many Divisions?), by Renaud Revel and Denis Rossano, that reminds us that the French will always view American films as a mortal danger to their culture, despite the occasional rebel product like Fahrenheit 9/11. The article keys in on the career of Jack Valenti, for decades head of the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and friend and confidante of powers-that-be, whether they be Democratic or Republican. Valenti is 83 years old now, and ready to step down after a career during which his objectives as MPA head have been unwavering: as Revel and Rossano put it, to put the rest of the world’s cinema under the American yoke, and to put Hollywood in turn in the pocket of the White House.
How else can you explain the harassment that Fahrenheit 9/11 has had to endure just to be shown? There was that earlier pressure on Disney not to release the film at all. When that didn’t succeed – indeed, of course, it was counter-productive in that it gained Moore’s film more attention and media coverage – then lo-and-behold, the MPA decided that it really contained so much graphic violence that it shouldn’t be allowed to be seen by people under 17 years of age without adult supervision. The authors also maintain that pressure is being exerted by the Hollywood studios against actors too inclined to support Democratic Party candidates, in the form even of that nightmare from Hollywood past, the blacklist.
In any case, there definitely exists (assert Revel and Rossano) an American “military-cinematographic complex” (and you thought we only had the “military-industrial complex” to worry about?). It stretches back to the meeting Franklin Roosevelt had in 1942 with movie industry captains, about getting films made to steady domestic morale and support the war effort, and has continued up to and through a similar meeting (featuring Jack Valenti) with George W. Bush and Karl Rove, weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Look, why do you think the American military is always ready to drop everything and devote troops and equipment to help make Hollywood war-epics ultra-realistic, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan? And why is the history of the American cinema dominated by tales of muscled superstars (e.g. Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and of course Arnold) venturing forth to defeat America’s enemies?
So it should have been no surprise that the first candidate to replace Valenti as MPA head was Victoria Clarke, former Pentagon press spokeswoman. It did happen that a general outcry against that choice forced her nomination to be withdrawn, but no matter, write Revel and Rossano: whoever succeeds Valenti will first have to visit the White House to get the blessing of whoever resides there.