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Frank Rich: Beautiful minds and ugly truths
Frank Rich NYT
Friday, May 21, 2004
NEW YORK "But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? And watch him suffer." - Barbara Bush on "Good Morning America," March 18, 2003.
She needn't have worried. Her son wasn't suffering. In one of the several pieces of startling video exhibited for the first time in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," we catch a candid glimpse of President George Bush about 36 hours after his mother's breakfast TV interview - minutes before he makes his own prime-time TV address to take the nation to war in Iraq. He is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. A makeup woman is doing his face. And Bush is having a high old time. He darts his eyes about and grins, as if he were playing a peek-a-boo game with someone just off-camera. He could be a teenager goofing with his buds to relieve the passing tedium of a haircut.
"In your wildest dreams you couldn't imagine Franklin Roosevelt behaving this way 30 seconds before declaring war, with grave decisions and their consequences at stake," said Moore in an interview before his new documentary's premiere at Cannes last Monday. "But that may be giving him credit for thinking that the decisions were grave." As we spoke, the consequences of those decisions kept coming. The premiere of "Fahrenheit 9/11" took place as news spread of the assassination of a widely admired post-Saddam Iraqi leader, Ezzedine Salim, blown up by a suicide bomber just a hundred yards from the entrance to America's "safe" headquarters in Baghdad, the Green Zone.
Whatever you think of Moore, there's no question he's detonating dynamite here. From a variety of sources - foreign journalists and broadcasters (like Britain's Channel Four), freelancers and sympathetic American TV workers who slipped him illicit video - he supplies war-time pictures that have been largely shielded from our view. Instead of recycling images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, once again, Moore can revel in extended new close-ups of the president continuing to read "My Pet Goat" to elementary school students in Florida for seven long minutes after learning of the attack. Just when Abu Ghraib and the savage beheading of Nicholas Berg make us think we've seen it all, here is yet another major escalation in the nation-jolting images that have become the battleground for the war about the war.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is not the movie Moore watchers, fans or foes, were expecting. (If it were, the foes would find it easier to ignore.) When he first announced this project last year after his boorish Oscar-night diatribe against Bush, he described it as an exposť of the connections between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties. But that story has been so strenuously told elsewhere that it's no longer news.
Moore settles for a brisk recap in the first of his film's two hours. And, predictably, he stirs it into an over-the-top, at times tendentious replay of a Bush hater's greatest hits: Katherine Harris, the Supreme Court, Harken Energy, AWOL in Alabama, the Carlyle Group, Halliburton, the lazy Crawford vacation of August 2001, the Patriot Act. But then the movie veers off in another direction entirely. Moore takes the same hairpin turn the country has over the past 14 months and crash-lands into the gripping story that is unfolding in real time right now.
Wasn't it just weeks ago that we were debating whether we should see the coffins of the American dead and whether Ted Koppel should read their names on "Nightline"? In "Fahrenheit 9/11," we see the actual dying, of American troops and Iraqi civilians alike, with all the ripped flesh and spilled guts that the violence of war entails. We also see some of the 4,000-plus American casualties: those troops hidden away in clinics at Walter Reed and at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where they try to cope with nerve damage and multiple severed limbs. They are not silent. They talk about their pain and their morphine, and they talk about betrayal. "I was a Republican for quite a few years," one soldier says with an almost innocent air of bafflement, "and for some reason they conduct business in a very dishonest way."
Perhaps the most damning sequence in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the one showing American troops as they ridicule hooded Iraqis in a holding pen near Samara in December 2003. A male soldier touches the erection of a prisoner lying on a stretcher underneath a blanket, an intimation of the sexual humiliations that were happening at Abu Ghraib at that same time. Besides adding further corroboration to Seymour Hersh's report that the top command has sanctioned a culture of abuse not confined to a single prison or a single company or seven guards, this video raises another question: Why didn't we see any of this on American TV before "60 Minutes II"?
The New York Times reported in March 2003 that Americans were using hooding and other inhumane techniques at CIA interrogation centers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. CNN reported on Jan. 20, after the U.S. Army quietly announced its criminal investigation into prison abuses, that "U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." And there the matter stood for months, even though, as we know now, soldiers' relatives with knowledge of these incidents were repeatedly trying to alert Congress and news organizations to the full panorama of the story.
Moore says he obtained his video from an independent foreign journalist embedded with the Americans. "We've had this footage in our possession for two months," he says. "I saw it before any of the Abu Ghraib news broke. I think it's pretty embarrassing that a guy like me with a high-school education and with no training in journalism can do this. What the hell is going on here? It's pathetic."
The movie's second hour is carried by the wrenching story of Lila Lipscomb, a flag-waving, self-described "conservative Democrat" from Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, whose son, Sergeant Michael Pedersen, was killed in Iraq. We watch Lipscomb, who "always hated" antiwar protesters, come undone with grief and rage. She clutches her son's last letter home and reads it aloud, her shaking voice and hand contrasting with his precise handwriting on lined notebook paper.
Sergeant Pedersen thanks his mother for sending "the bible and books and candy," but not before writing of the president: "He got us out here for nothing whatsoever. I am so furious right now, Mama." By this point, Moore's jokes have vanished from "Fahrenheit 9/11." So, pretty much, has Moore himself. He can't resist underlining one moral at the end, but by then the audience, crushed by the needlessness of Lipscomb's loss, is ready to listen. Speaking of America's volunteer army, Moore concludes: "They serve so that we don't have to. They offer to give up their lives so that we can be free. It is, remarkably, their gift to us. And all they ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. Will they ever trust us again?"
A particularly unappetizing spectacle in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is provided by Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of both the administration's Iraqi fixation and its doctrine of "preventive" war. We watch him stick his comb in his mouth until it is wet with spit, after which he runs it through his hair. This is not the image we usually see of the deputy defense secretary, who has been ritualistically presented in the U.S. press as the most refined of intellectuals - a guy with, as Barbara Bush would have it, a beautiful mind.
No one would ever accuse Moore of having a beautiful mind. Subtleties and fine distinctions are not his thing. That matters very little, it turns out, when you have a story this ugly and this powerful to tell.