This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours
Hello again everyone, and welcome to a column which takes a look at a new phenomenon: that of the blockbuster documentary. I refer of course to Michael Moore's award-winning, inflammatory, and hugely controversial polemic Fahrenheit 9/11. Now I am well aware that here on h2g2 even having political opinions is considered slightly declasse, to say nothing of actually expressing them... and so I'll do my best to stick to reviewing Moore's movie and not his politics. However, if this paragraph is followed by a huge blank space you will know what's happened. In any case, if any film this year can claim to be essential viewing, then Fahrenheit 9/11 is it.
A few short months ago it looked like Fahrenheit 9/11 (the title alludes to Ray Bradbury's allegorical SF novel Fahrenheit 451, something Bradbury's a bit annoyed about) would be getting a release in every country of the world except the USA. This would have been more than a bit ironic as, deep down, I suspect Michael Moore doesn't give a stuff about what the rest of the world thinks of his movie. This is a movie forged with a single intention in mind: to execute a thorough pistol-whipping of George W Bush and his administration, and sway the hearts and minds of the American people with a view to defenestrating him in this November's election.
Moore kicks off with the fiasco of the Floridian election results back in 2000, and George W Bush's rather laid-back approach to being the most powerful man in the world for the first eight months of his incumbency. Then, of course, came the September 11th attacks, and the film makes no attempt to downplay or belittle just how monstrous they were. But the film goes on to question virtually every one of the government's responses to the crisis: letting many of Osama bin Laden's closest family leave the country without being questioned, introducing controversial anti-terrorist legislation, and - of course - ultimately the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moore depicts Bush and his family, immensely wealthy American corporations, and the oil-rich Saudis as utterly complicit in a conspiracy to get rich in any way possible, even if that means sacrificing the lives of hundreds of American soldiers from impoverished or ethnic backgrounds. But Moore is unstinting in his criticism and no-one is spared his ferocious scorn: not in the administration, or the Democratic party, or even Britney Spears. This is, to say the least, explosive stuff and explains the rather mixed response both Moore and the film have received in their native land.
However, the tone of the film is not dry or hectoring: it's frequently very funny indeed, Moore's commentary often arch and ironic. He's not abandoned the use of grandstanding stunts in order to make his points, but here they seem funny and apposite. On learning that the children of members of congress are rather under-represented amongst the troops in Iraq, he starts handing out recruiting brochures and forms to their parents. And, rather crucially, he's still more than happy to let his targets make themselves look foolish. 'I call upon the free peoples of the world to help us catch these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive,' says Dubya in some news footage, leading the free world from a golf course. And 'Sit down, my son. We don't read most of the bills,' says a rather exasperated legislator, when Moore expresses surprise at his ignorance of some of the post-September 11th laws. Presumably Moore himself wasn't around when one the film's most startling sequences - a day in the life of two Michigan-based recruiters for the Marine Corps - was shot, simply because I can't believe the military would be so brazen about their methods if they knew just who was filming them.
On the other hand, Michael Moore often comes across as a bit sentimental and sanctimonious - 'preachy' as a friend of mine puts it - and his attitude to the American underclass he sees as so exploited and abused borders on the patronising. And when his wry and sarcastic tone slips, as it occasionally does, it becomes crystal clear that Moore's desire to smear Bush is every bit as ruthless and unprincipled as anything he accuses the president of.
While Fahrenheit 9/11 is a brilliantly assembled film, it's obviously a propaganda piece, as partial and misleading as that implies. This is especially obvious in the sequence about Bush's 'coalition of the willing' in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Moore depicts this as a sorry collection of tiny Third World states - Morocco being the only one I'd heard of - and while Moore's dislike of the UK is a matter of public record I still think that's a little hard on us. More likely he's deliberately choosing not to mention the British involvement simply because that suits the story he's telling. Blaming Blair for the invasion, while feasible, wouldn't help his onslaught against Bush.
And in other places Moore crosses the line between exposing obscure but relevent facts and engaging in paranoid conspiracy-theory. He makes startling claims concerning the true reasons for the American intervention in Afghanistan, claims which just don't ring true. And at times it seems he can't decide whether to present George W Bush as a simpering knucklehead or a ruthless criminal mastermind - one suspects the truth is probably more complex in any case.
But Fahrenheit 9/11's attitude to the truth is a complex one. It certainly isn't the case that Moore is the valiant lone ranger bringing the truth and nothing but to a bamboozled nation, for all that this is how he presents himself. Then again, this film is about discrediting Bush, not presenting a balanced or objective picture, and Moore would probably argue that his tactics are no worse than those used by the American right to get their message across (the film contains a sequence demonstrating just how compromised the US media are), and that given the Republican bias of the media he's entirely justified in using them to get an alternative point of view out.
In any case, no matter what your politics, there's a certain exhilaration to be derived from watching such a determined and deft hatchet-job take place. Moore's arguments may be suspect, but his delivery of them is outstanding. (And, by the way, I can't believe anyone could call Michael Moore unpatriotic: his beef is quite clearly with Bush and his associates, not the American nation.) I can't recommend Fahrenheit 9/11 as a balanced assessment of the Bush administration - but as a piece of agitprop and deliberately incendiary film-making it's terrific stuff. Recommended.
Jerry Goldsmith 1929 - 2004
Over the weekend I was sorry to hear of the death of Jerry Goldsmith, an extremely prolific composer and conductor of film and TV scores. While never quite achieving the respectability and renown of colleagues like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrman, Goldsmith's sheer workrate, plus the mainstream success of many of the productions he scored for, means that at least a couple of his tunes are probably hardwired into your brain.
Don't believe me? Well, how about the themes from The Man From UNCLE or Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or The Omen, The Waltons and The Twilight Zone? Goldsmith's body of work is studded with the names of films and shows which weren't necessarily great art but were always highly entertaining. Being the person that I am, I can't help but be impressed by the number of SF and fantasy productions he scored: multiple incarnations of Star Trek, the Alien franchise, The Mummy, and Total Recall - along with less remembered fare like Capricorn One, Poltergeist, The Boys from Brazil and Explorers.
I've always had a lot of time for his discordantly atonal electronic score for Logan's Run, but when I think of Goldsmith it's always in terms of his scores for two of the Planet of the Apes movies. His score for the original is another largely atonal work which aids enormously in establishing the eerie strangeness of the film's atmosphere, while his music for Escape From..., while at first listen a much more conventional piece of jazz-pop, does a sterling job of matching the moods of the most emotionally diverse Apes movie. It's just a shame the last couple of movies he scored were such dogs. RIP.