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As Long as We Remember...

July 6, 2004

Right-Wing Censure Effort Backfired

Tony Soltero

One of my favorite editorial cartoons of all time dates back to the late 1980s. It features a panic-stricken Salman Rushdie running for his life as he's being chased by a pack of angry Muslim clerics targeting him because of his allegedly blasphemous work, "The Satanic Verses."

Meanwhile, Mr. Rushdie's agent is keeping pace with his heretic client, yelling at him, "I TELL you, Salman, you can't BUY publicity like this!!"

I thought of that cartoon when I observed the coordinated, malicious assault the right-wing elements of our country launched against Michael Moore after his latest movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Once it became obvious that it was going to pick up an American distributor (after Disney timidly dropped it), the full-scale trashing of the movie began in our media -- especially by "critics" who didn't even bother to see it first.

Unfortunately for the right wingers, the attacks on Mr. Moore did nothing but generate free publicity for his work. Realizing this, the right turned up the pressure. They tried to intimidate theater owners who had decided to display the film. They even, laughably, tried to get the FCC to stop the movie on the grounds that it was "a political advertisement." A chorus of talking heads in our "liberal" media lined up to condemn the film and call Mr. Moore every name in the book. A prominent figure even asked if Mr. Moore had the "right" to make "this movie."

So, how well did all this carpet bombing work? Well, Mr. Moore's opus bowed 11 days ago, and it pulled the best per-theater opening-weekend numbers of ANY movie released this year.

That's right, Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed more money, per theater, than Mel Gibson's much-ballyhooed The Passion of the Christ. It generated more income that the concurrently-released, mass-marketed White Chicks, which opened on twice as many screens.

Thank you, Bill O'Reilly. Thank you, Michael Savage. Thank you, Christopher Hitchens. Without your valiant efforts, we would have never enjoyed all this buzz surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. The potential audience for the movie has broken wide open -- heck, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s now urging people to see it -- and Michael Moore is an even richer man. I'm sure that's what you intended.

Does the right have any toes left?

But having attended the movie, I can now understand why the right was so desperate to squelch it.

To say President Bush doesn't come off well in this film is like saying Joan Crawford has a bit of an image problem in Mommie Dearest. And it's not just President Bush and his coterie -- the broadcast media looks even worse, if that's possible. The Democrats receive their share of brickbats, mostly for their ineffectuality. It's not a pretty picture of those in power.

The movie is a collage of footage of major events of the last four years: the aborted Florida recount in 2000; the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the brief retaliation against Afghanistan and the Taliban; the re-direction of efforts towards Iraq; and the current unpleasantness we now find ourselves in. Mr. Moore's skill resides in allowing public figures to hang themselves through their own words and actions -- and President Bush gives him plenty of opportunities.

In one memorable sequence, President Bush is on vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. Asked if he's doing any work, his response is on a par with that of a slacking fourth-grader suddenly challenged by his parents to produce evidence of having completed his homework.

And, of course, there's the now-famous scene in which President Bush lingers for seven minutes in the Florida classroom after being informed that planes had just hit the World Trade Center. His face projects a blank vacuousness that is unspinnably self-explanatory.

But it's not just President Bush. In one clip, Mr. Moore personally approaches various congressmen and senators -- of both parties -- and asks them if they'd encourage their sons to enlist and go fight in Iraq. The politicians' responses -- facial and verbal -- are perhaps more damning than any of the Bush moments. Allen Funt would be proud, if not envious.

In another scene, Congressman John Conyers (D., MI) explains that he never bothered to read the Patriot Act before voting for its passage, and actually sounds proud of his negligence. Is it too much to ask that our elected representatives perform their, well, JOBS?

And the news media -- particularly the broadcast sector -- comes off worst of all. It's jarring enough that most of the opening minutes of the movie -- an exploration of the Bush family's ties with Saudi potentates, the bin Laden clan, and other unsavory elements -- probably came as a complete surprise to many filmgoers. But a responsible and independent news media would have covered these stories and threads, and made sure ordinary Americans knew about these things, BEFORE the 2000 election.

Wouldn't it have been nice to know that Bush and the bin Ladens were buddies before we cast our ballots? But once the administration began to beat the war drums, the broadcast media descended into new lows of shameful vapidity, acting as cheerleaders, rather than journalists. Hardly ever was a probing question asked. Mr. Moore brings that out in bold relief.

The film's center is a Michigan wife and mother named Lila Lipscomb. She works at a Flint employment office, and she's proud of her family and its long history of military service. When her son joins the armed forces and is shipped off to Iraq, she sees it as the latest in a long line of noble and necessary efforts. Her transformation in the face of the happenings serves as a metaphor for the entire nation's experience in this Iraq adventure, and her final scene is earth-shattering.

The Iraq footage is grisly, and offered as the explanation for the film's R rating, despite there being nary a bare breast in sight. But it's nothing worse than what can be seen on prime-time TV -- or on the nightly news, for that matter.

Mr. Moore's work is ambitious and sprawling, with more than a few comic moments, but he manages to connect the threads and assemble them into an almost-seamless whole.

And if the audience reaction is any indication -- the packed theater gave the film a rousing ovation after its completion -- Fahrenheit 9/11 is going to draw a lot of eyeballs. And while Mr. Moore doesn't provide answers to all of the vexing questions surrounding our current leaders, he's one of the few journalists around with the courage to ask these questions.

A whole new, untapped bevy of potential voters is listening. This isn't good news for a Bush administration already in freefall.

No wonder they tried to stop it.

And no wonder it backfired.

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