A Double Bill of Documentaries – Fahrenheit 9/11 & America’s Heart & Soul (2004)

What a double bill the next two non-fiction films would make! One is blatantly political, created to discredit and defeat a sitting president who has drawn the ire of the film’s maker. The other seems to be apolitical, but actually is based on a politics very different from that of the first, one perhaps best summed up by “God’s in his Heaven, and all’s right with America.”

Fahrenheit 9/11

Rated R for violence and language

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Sama’ria, the notable men of the first of the nations…”
Amos 6:1

A Double Bill of Documentaries

“Michael Moore is the most courageous and hard-hitting filmmaker around, dedicated to presenting the truth about controversial issues?” “Michael Moore is the most underhanded, obnoxious filmmaker around, dedicated to spreading his half-baked opinions and out and out lies!” You hate him or love him, but you must credit Michael Moore for bringing the documentary film to the forefront of public. Well, maybe documentary, if you are thinking of the classical documentaries of Fred Wiseman, is not the appropriate word. What we have in his film is the 21st century equivalent of the pamphlets and broadsides written in the heat of the political wars of 200 years ago. Filled with invective and venomous innuendo, they were not intended to present a balanced view of an issue or opponent, but the opinion of their passionate writers.

Moore begins his film with a recap of the Florida election debacle, stating that it seemed more like a bad dream than reality. The bitterness created by what some regard as “the stolen election” was so great, he claims, that during the Inaugural Parade the President could not get out of his call for the traditional walk because of those throwing eggs at his car. He presents a picture of a vacation-obsessed President, as if he could not be working away from the White House. He shows us the embarrassing minutes when the President received word about the bombing of the first WTC tower and sat there, something no doubt the President himself wishes he had handled better. There is a lot about the Bush family, oil, and connections with the large bin Laden family, implying that they were allowed to leave the USA right away despite the grounding of all airplanes before the FBI could interrogate them. Actually, they left a bit later when flights had been allowed again, though it does seem strange that the FBI failed to interview any of them.

The above is just the beginning. Moore shows us Iraqi civilians at peace, and then a series of horrible scenes of non-combatants killed and mutilated by our air attacks. He interviews people in his native Flint Michigan to show the impact of the Iraqi war on them (namely that like during the Vietnam War, it is the poor and middle class who bear most of the burden of the fighting), the most harrowing interview being with a mother whose son was killed in the war. She is now a bitter critic of the government in general and of the war in particular. Later, in Washington, DC, when Moore catches her on camera again, she breaks off and cries: at the time I thought Moore should have shut down the camera, the private grief deserving of more respect. However, during a recent TV interview she said that Moore gave her the option of deleting any or all of her scenes.

Among Moore’s charges are that the administration favors the elite—we see Bush saying at a fancy banquet that they’re “my base,” and we learn that only one Congressperson has a son in Iraq—and certain powerful companies that have ties with members of the administration. Also that President Bush and his colleagues were woefully asleep at the switch before 9/11 and then promptly got us by deception into the wrong war (in Iraq, rather than concentrating on Afghanastan).

There is more of Moore, much more, the charges flying thick and fast. One little known sequence that he brings to light seems eerie—Vice President Gore presiding over the senate when the outcome of the election was being confirmed. Quite a number of Democratic Congressmen raised objections to the Florida tally and tried to get the combined Congress to object or call for an enquiry. This would have required just one Senator to join in the petition, but not one would do so. The Representatives were all members of the Black Caucus, members of the race whose franchise was the most damaged in Florida.

Much of Moore’s editing and his logic are disturbing—I think of the McCarthy era and the wild charges made by that demagogue, his logic going like this: “Mr. Smith is a Communist. Mr. Jones attended a meeting at which Mr. Smith was present. Therefore Mr. Jones must be a Communist.” At other times I think one of Moore’s charges might be better received and dealt with on its own merit if he were less intemperate—and yet I realize that to some who regard him as a prophet with a camera (as I did when I reviewed Bowling For…) this might be like telling Jeremiah to tone down his Temple Sermon a bit or to say to Amos that “cows of Bashan” just isn’t a nice thing to call the socialites of Samaria. However, Moore’s film, regardless of its lack of objectivity, is doing a lot to raise important issues, though one might question whether it is enhancing or degrading the level of civil discourse. They are issue vital to our nation and the world. Judging by the increased number of screens showing it and the crowds turning out for it (at least initially), Fahrenheit 9/11 really is a movie that matters.

America’s Heart and Soul Documentary

Not Rated

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee!
Psalm 67:1-3

How interesting that the Disney people have released this gorgeously photographed paean to America after refusing to agree to release Michael Moore’s anti-Bush diatribe. I know that it usually takes years to plan, produce and distribute a film, but I doubt that the timing of the release of America, almost at the same time as the release of Moore’s film is not coincidental. So upbeat is Louis Schwartzberg’s film that the sophisticated critics of the East are bound to label it “corn pone.” And yet, even if the real intent of the distributor is to counter Michael Moore’s negative view of the Bush administration and its war, I found myself engaged in the brief vignettes of the ordinary and extraordinary people visited by the filmmaker. We really do need to be reminded ever so often by celebrating the good things about this country, lest we be led by the headlines into a cynical view of the nation (nonetheless, you will probably detect a not of this at times in the following observations.

As you might expect from such “a portrait of America”, the first person featured steps forth from the great American myth of the cowboy astride a horse and declaring his love for the mountains and the freedom his life gives him. In a Louisiana swamp a Cajun, over the toe-tapping strains of a string band, talks about the importance of knowing where we came from and how our diversity is. Amidst a swinging black congregation the aging Mosie Brooks talks how important singing is, “Music is my worship. It flows from the soul”—and the way she sings, we believe her. In the Appalachian Mountains a woman weaver speaks of the sturdy women who came to the area and how poverty is not really in their vocabulary. As she watches out the window at her husband on a tractor plowing their land she says, “I’ve been broke many times, but I’ve never been poor.”

Other people whom we see and come to admire is a woman champion airplane pilot; a Vermont farmer. Apparently a single-parent raising his beloved son (he turns out to be a musician and an aspiring filmmaker); an African American hatmaker; a chair-maker proud of his products; an equally proud California grape grower; a truck driver by day and a musician by night; a bicycle messenger who fearlessly; careers through the crowed streets of Manhattan; a New Orleans black boy and his older brother skilled on the trombone and trumpet; a blind climber who managed to scale Mt. Everest; a 36 year-old Cerebral Palsy victim, confined to wheel chair and hooked up to a computer to speak, whose loving father enters with him in the Boston Marathon.

There are many more such folk, and one thing that, diverse as they are, most seem to share, a faith and a hope in God. They do not wear their faith on their sleeves, but some do talk about it, and for most faith seems to be woven into their lives—Psalm 67 might well describe their prayers. One person of passionate faith, and of special interest to me, is Cecil Williams, pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. This almost legendary leader, long known for his revitalizing ministry in the old church where he pioneered the use of modern and popular music and media in the worship services, as well as establishing various ministries to feed and work for justice for the poor. Speaking of the latter, he says, “I went out into the Tenderloin area and related to people on the fringe of society.” He is ably aided by his Asian-American wife: I think she was the one who says, “We should stop getting folks to go to heaven and start living with each other right now.” Thus earlier, when I wrote that this is a film that says “all’s right with America,” I wasn’t entirely accurate, Rev. Cecil Williams being one of our prophets challenging our society for 40 years or more. Still, the filmmaker would have presented a more balanced picture had he shown us more of the dropout those whom Rev. Williams describes as on “the fringe of society.” However, America’s Heart and Soul is no more out of balance than Michael Moore’s portrait of the Bush administration, so—wouldn’t these two films be an interesting double feature, if not at a movie theater, then perhaps at a church when the two are available on video?