It's funny. I'd seen all this stuff before -- I mean it isn't as if there was anything really new here for anyone who's been paying attention for the past few years. And yet, I cried. Maybe it's the deprogramming of having at least some of what we've seen replayed with any decent focus for One Brief Shining Moment, beyond the self-imposed straitjacket of a docile and dangerously inept US press. Maybe it's just the oxygen given to all those impulses so many of us have kept in check, all those shoots of anger, sadness and embarrassment blossoming into full blown consciousness.
My own thought process in response to Michael Moore's new film reminded me of one of those desiccated sponges you put in water -- a few hours later and voila: your tiny piece of foam has bloated into a full blown fish, or frog, or palm tree ten times its original size. Or maybe like opening an archive, unzipping a million saved files at once. My brain fairly exploded with repressed anger going back to the Florida recount disaster: things I had known in much more detail before Moore scratched the surface again and brought it all flooding back.
In fact, as soon as we got home, my wife and I started searching through old folders of emails from that period tucked away, too important to throw away, yet too disheartening to face on a more regular basis. This is the potential power of Fahrenheit 9/11: rousing the natural, inevitable rage against the machine of war, lies and fabricated videotape. Of course, many people will be exposed to new (for them) truths or aspects of the current crisis they haven't fully thought through. But more, I suspect, will be nudged into acknowledging nagging feelings that something is terribly wrong in this country, feelings they have been harboring but afraid to express.
What Moore does is let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. When we left the theater, there was a crowd of young aspiring journalists waiting to ask our impressions of the film. One young man in front of us was a bit evasive, simply offering that it was "mostly stuff he had known all along, but maybe people will start to wake up." As he walked away, one of our crowd recognized him from high school. "Hey, isn't that so-and-so? His father died in the military, right? And he just got out from a four-year stint."
It is this level of penetration that is familiar, yet still surprising. Since even Republicans are bolting left and right from the sinking, stinking ship that is the Bush administration, it stands to reason that the defection goes more than skin deep. Still, it is gratifying to see that the disaffection with The Way Things Are affects such a broad swath, from soldiers in Iraq to unemployed workers in Michigan and elsewhere.
Of course, I was wary, as usual, that I would wind up hating something so over hyped. But I was pleasantly surprised at how moved I was by this film. Yes, Moore resorts to his tired old frumpy-schmuck tactics of ambushing targets and coming away the rejected loser who is, after all, only looking for the truth. But it is hilarious watching congresspeople scurry away from him like cockroaches in the sun as he tries to enlist their ruling class kids, made especially poignant by the marine at his side, who would rather risk jail time than go back to Iraq "to kill other poor people."
In fact, one of the more didactic subplots of the film, in which Moore painstakingly follows the transformation of a military mother who, early on, proclaims herself a “conservative Democrat,” is also the most moving, probably because Moore eschews his earlier guerilla theater instincts and lets the drama play out. Mining the dramatic gold of this mother reading her dead son's Last Letter Home may be Moore's stock and trade, but there were few dry eyes in the theater (mine not among them).
It may be a bit discomfiting for astute American viewers to find themselves more focused on - -and perhaps more moved by -- this woman's plight than of earlier shots of Iraqi civilian dead. Moore does create the echo of mourning parents in each country, the plaintive Iraqi mother's cries to Allah: "what did he do? Why did he have to die?" Michael Pederson's mother eerily refracts this plaint, calling on Jesus to help her and questioning "why did they have to take him? He was a good kid!" This brilliant parallel makes the transformation one Moore apparently hopes domestic viewers can identify with: seeing this mother, wracked with grief, after a confrontation with some brain-dead loser who accuses her of "staging" her son's death at an antiwar display outside the white house. In fury and self-blame, she laments that "People think they know, but they don't. I thought I knew, but I didn't know." Then her legs seem to buckle under her as she cries out with a mother's grief: "I need my son!" while Moore's probing yet tender camera keeps running, helpless, distant, paralyzed by the same realizations.
It is rousing the US public out of this paralysis that may be the chief goal and result of this film, as tall an order as that may seem. It fairly burns to see the puffy red face of Jim Baker from Florida 2000, the oil-greased slide of power, death and war profits that motivates these bastards, the total contempt for the poor and working-class kids they snare in relentless, targeted recruiting shams - -all the while yucking it up with the "haves and have-mores," what Bush loathsomely refers to in one of his scripted, awkward, podium-joke deliveries: "some people call this the elite, I call it my base!"
But more importantly, even while focusing on what a jackass Bush is -- hey, it's funny -- Moore manages to delve deeper than his ill-conceived fawning over War Hero Clark last spring would imply. In particular, the Democrats take the pasting they deserve for the abysmal fact that not a single Senator would come to the aid of the Congressional Black Caucus in officially protesting the 2000 election. Deftly, Moore is able to tie this spineless moral failure in with an even more criminally immoral system where salivating recruiters hunt down (there is no other word for it, as the footage makes clear) brown and poor kids to fight the wars of the rich. The disingenuousness of the "opposition" party is laid bare, despite a few important interviews from members of congress fighting the good fight, as the consummate corporate ass-kisser it is, too addicted to campaign cash to effectively oppose the president's march to war. War is, as one eager potential profiteer sheepishly concedes on film, "good for business, bad for the people."
Enraged and ashamed (hopefully), the audiences at Moore's film can indeed rise up if they seize the opportunity, throwing off the bullshit-encrusted mantra that "we are stuck in Iraq," along with the sham arguments that sold a pack of war crimes disguised as "liberation." A friend's reaction was simple and succinct: "It makes me mad. I probably should have been more aggressive with people at the grocery store, or people at my old job. You know, people you just feel like choking." Is it too late to turn back the rising tide of ignorance and budding fascism? For the sake of humanity, we have to hope not.
Daniel Patrick Welch is a writer, singer, linguist and activist who lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School. Visit his website at: www.danielpwelch.com. © 2004 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to danielpwelch.com.
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