Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The New McCarthy

Mr. Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, explains how Michael Moore is "more McCarthy than Murrow."

Michael Moore has won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and may win an Oscar for the kind of work that got Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Jack Kelly fired.

Trying to track the unproven innuendoes and conspiracies in a Michael Moore film or book is as futile as trying to count the flatulence jokes in one by Adam Sandler. Some journalists and critics have acted as if his wrenching of facts is no more serious than a movie continuity problem, like showing a 1963 Chevy in 1956 Santa Monica.

A documentary film doesn't have to be fair and balanced, to coin a phrase. But it ought to make an attempt to be accurate. It can certainly be pointed and opinionated. But it should not knowingly misrepresent the truth. Much of Michael Moore's films and books, however entertaining to his fans and enraging to his critics, seems to regard facts as mere nuisances to the story he wants to tell.

Back in 1991 that sharpest of film critics, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, blunted some of the raves for Mr. Moore's "Roger and Me" by pointing out how the film misrepresented many facts about plant closings in Flint, Mich., and caricatured people it purported to feel for. "The film I saw was shallow and facetious," said Kael, "a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing."

His methods remain unrefined in "Fahrenheit 9/11." Mr. Moore ignores or misrepresents the truth, prefers innuendo to fact, edits with poetic license rather than accuracy, and strips existing news footage of its context to make events and real people say what he wants, even if they don't. As Kael observed back then, Mr. Moore's method is no more high-minded than "the work of a slick ad exec."

The main premise of Mr. Moore's recent work is that both Presidents Bush have been what amounts to Manchurian Candidates of the Saudi royal family. Mr. Moore suggests (he depends so much on innuendo that a simple, declarative verb like "says" is usually impossible) the Saudi government, having soured on their pawns for unstated reasons, launched the attacks of Sept. 11.

"What if these weren't wacko terrorists, but military pilots who signed onto a suicide mission?" Moore asks in the best-selling "Dude, Where's My Country?" "What if they were doing this at the behest of either the Saudi government or certain disgruntled members of the Saudi royal family?" Central to Mr. Moore's indictment of the current President Bush is his charge that the U.S. government secretly assisted the evacuation of bin Laden family members from the U.S. in the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks, when all other flights nationwide were grounded. He supports this with grainy images of indecipherable documents.

But on our show on Saturday, Richard Clarke, the government's former counter-terrorism adviser and no apologist for the Bush administration, told us that he had authorized those flights, but only after air travel had been restored and all the Saudis had been questioned. "I think Moore's making a mountain of a molehill," he said. Moreover, said Mr. Clarke, "He never interviewed me." Instead, Mr. Moore had simply lifted a clip from an ABC interview. Perhaps Mr. Moore just didn't want to get an answer that he didn't want to hear. (See how useful innuendoes can be?)

In what is perhaps the most wrenching scene in the film, an Iraqi woman is shown wailing amid the rubble caused by a bomb that killed members of her family. I do not doubt her account, or her sorrow. I have interviewed Iraqis about U.S. bombs that killed civilians. People who agree to wars should see the human damage bombs can do.

But reporters who were taken around to see the sites of civilian deaths during the bombing of Baghdad also observed that some of those errant bombs were fired by Iraqi anti-aircraft crews. Mr. Moore doesn't let the audience know when and where this bomb was dropped, or otherwise try to identify the culprit of the tragedy.

Mr. Moore tries hard to identify himself with U.S. troops and their concerns. But he spends an awful lot of effort depicting them as dupes and brutes. At one point in "Fahrenheit 9/11," someone off-camera prods a U.S. soldier into singing a favorite hip-hop song with profane lyrics. Mr. Moore then runs the soldier's voice over combat footage, to make it seem as if the soldier were insensitively singing along with the destruction.

In another scene, U.S. soldiers make savage jokes about the awkward effects of rigor mortis on one part of the corpse of an Iraqi soldier. I do not doubt the authenticity of those pictures. But I also have no particular reason to trust it. A few basic details, like where and when the video was shot, are considered traditional reporting techniques (especially after the front-page photos of British soldiers brutalizing Iraqi prisoners turned out to be frauds). A few other basic facts might have informed the audience. Was the Iraqi killed in battle? By a suicide bomb? Moore says the U.S. soldiers are good boys turned coarse in an immoral war. But I have also heard those kind of ugly and anxious jokes about corpses from overstressed emergency room physicians.

In the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote that, "Viewers may come away from Moore's movie believing some things that probably aren't true," and that he "uses association and innuendo to create false impressions." Try to imagine those phrases on a marquee. But that is his rave review! He lauds "Fahrenheit 9/11" for its "appeal to working-class Americans." Do we really want to believe that only innuendo, untruths, and conspiracy theories can reach working-class Americans?

Governments of both parties have assuaged Saudi interests for more than 50 years. (I wonder if Mr. Moore grasps how much the jobs of auto workers in Flint depended on cheap oil.) Sound questions about the course, costs, and grounds for the war in Iraq have been raised by voices across the political spectrum.

But when 9/11 Commission Chairman Kean has to take a minute at a press conference, as he did last Thursday, to knock down a proven falsehood like the secret flights of the bin Laden family, you wonder if those who urge people to see Moore's film are informing or contaminating the debate. I see more McCarthy than Murrow in the work of Michael Moore. No matter how hot a blowtorch burns, it doesn't shed much light.

Posted by calimacala at 9:44 AM |

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