Documentaries have always been a little dry because of their factual basis and more than a little depressing because of their social and political subject matter: war; poverty; disease. They have also been, for the most part, the arena of more left leaning ideas. Now Michael Moore, with a little help from Errol Morris, has done the unthinkable, he’s made docs fun as well as intelligent. Webster’s defines a document as “anything used as proof” and documentary as a film or TV program that “shows news events/social conditions in a dramatic story based mainly on facts.” Along comes Moore who adds humor and irony to the genre, and poof, people are lining up to see documentaries. The problem is that as his work has become more popular, it has ceased to resemble a documentary and leaves the genre in danger of following the path of reality TV into entertainment over substance. That said, I was taken aback when I saw Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and not because of Moore’s and not because he reveals Bush to be a ninny in a power-suit with his finger on the button, but because one of our best political watchdogs and documentarians seems to imply that by replacing one man, we can end the vile international joke that US politics has become, and, with the exception of the Florida footage, he does it with tongue in cheek using facts that any savvy NPR listener has put together for themselves over the last four years.
The film that brought him into the public eye, ROGER AND ME is stunning in its philosophical questioning of how much social responsibility a large company owes it’s workers. His Academy Award winning documentary, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, is also a high point in documentary history as Moore is able to capture the culpability of an entire town and by extension, US society, for the school shooting at Columbine. Perhaps Moore’s attempt to go from local issues that become national, to national issues that are global that is the cause of his less than stellar turn in FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Moore distills the Iraq war, the 2000 election debacle and the US obsession with OPEC oil down to one man: George W. Bush and his misleading of the American people into the Iraq war by tricking them into believing that Iraq was at the root of 9/11. Is a politician manipulating the people’s opinions unexpected? And more importantly, is it possible for one man to be responsible for such an act?
The manipulation of the public to get it to support war has a fine tradition in this country: World War I; Vietnam; the Gulf War. And while people who do not remember history are not necessarily doomed to repeat it, they should be able to explain, if only to themselves, that strange feeling of déjà vu when the sequel to the last bad war shows up at a theater near them. HIDDEN WARS OF THE DESERT is an excellent user friendly documentary that lays out the reasons for the continued American political interest in Iraq, in other words why we can’t seem to stop bombing the life out of it. Painful in its narrative of American motivation, it shows how, in the last Gulf War, headed by Bush, Sr. the US administration told the American people that Iraq had to be invaded to defend Kuwait. What they didn’t tell anyone, though you could find the information if you looked hard enough, was that Iraq had asked the US if they had a pact with Kuwait to protect it if Iraq invaded and the US administration said, no. Next, and this may sound familiar, the UN wanted to mediate the problem but the US said war was the only answer. The US Army proceeded to do operational training with just this scenario: what if Iraq invaded, say, oh, um, Kuwait? Why the deception and sacrifice of Kuwait? To show Saudi Arabia that Iraq troops were massing at its border so we could be the first country with a military base of operations in an OPEC country.
While Bush is evil in means and action, he is not a new breed of dog. He is also not the sole manipulator of our political motivation toward war, as Moore would have you believe. One of Bush’s most important allies in the coalition in the battle for the support of the good US citizens for his war was the Fox Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who, by the way, owns: over 100 cable stations; over 100 radio stations; over 100 magazines; and the list goes on. One man, who thought that Reagan was a god, owns the main news source for millions of voters. He is against liberal thought, against Democrats, against same sex marriage and for Christianity, conservatism and George W. Bush. His CEO, Roger Ailes, is the former Media Strategist for the Reagan and both Bush administrations. Murdock is one of 5 men/companies that own ALL of the major news sources in the country. Think about that, there are 5 companies, all interested in turning a profit, (and who helps companies turn a profit better than the Republicans), that give the news on which millions base their opinions about the world. Moore completely ignores this source of support for Bush and instead focuses on comedic things like Bush’s thin grasp of the English language, which is funny, but nowhere near as frightening as the exploitation and monopolization of unbiased news in our country. Moore goes for the easy horror: footage from 9/11.
In his amazing documentary OUTFOXED, Robert Greenwald chronicles the Fox Network’s bold, unchallenged use of opinion tainted facts in order to support everything the Bush administration has done. In their simplest manipulations Fox puts catch phrases, like “the war in Iraq is going well”, directly from the White House briefings into their broadcasts. Greenwald shows us at least 10 instances of “reporters” on Fox using the exact words given to them by briefings to report the “news.” This is not news reporting, this is kissing ass and controlling public opinion. Their most subtle, at least for people who don’t think for themselves, attempt to sway opinion against Bush’s opposition in the coming election is the current, constant references to John Kerry and how he looks “very French” hoping to evoke the French hating craze of the previous year. Greenwald’s is the documentary to watch if you want to understand the complex workings of the politics of the Bush administration’s manipulation of Americans. Greenwald gives us a documentary that outlines the problem, and gives a laundry list of things people are doing to fight back, including buying low frequency radio stations so they can report local news in their area and play whatever music they like.
Yet another documentary that is in many ways better at documenting issues is last year’s Academy Award winner for documentary, Errol Morris’ THE FOG OF WAR, a discussion with Robert McNamara: Air Force strategist during WW I; CEO of Ford Motors; Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; and finally president of the World Bank for many years. Morris has made some amazing docs: GATES OF HEAVEN, about the pet cemetery industry; THE THIN BLUE LINE, that actually helped get an innocent man off of death row; and MR. DEATH about an electric chair repair man who was a holocaust denier. In FOG OF WAR, McNamara discusses the real responsibilities of defending the US against a real threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the problems of running an unpopular and most likely immoral war like Vietnam. McNamara is a strong speaker in the twilight of his life and, having had time to reflect on the rights and wrongs of his actions, gives a brutally honest telling of how politics work when the president wants war and the people do not.
Where Greenwald gives us a damning chronicle of the Bush administration and its foot soldiers, and Morris give us food for thought about what goes into making difficult moral decisions when you are actually in charge of them, Moore gives us documentary-light. One comedic sketch after another about the Keystone Cop named George W. Bush. So Bush manipulated the public; so he is friendly with a foreign OPEC family for whom he does favors; so he wants to do anything to be reelected. He is a politician folks there is no mystery to his actions. Moore ignores that a conspiracy takes more than one person and makes Bush the boogie man of the hour and the simple act of making sure he does not get elected again a way to keep the monster out from under the bed. Make no mistake, removing Bush from office is an important goal for all voters, but it is not a catch all for solving the threat to democracy that allowed him to be elected. We’re going to have to do more than show up at the polls for this mess to be cleaned up.