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Monday, June 28, 2004 - Page updated at 05:32 P.M.
By Moira Macdonald
OK, just for a moment, can we all forget about the controversy and hatred and invective and accusations swirling around Michael Moore's fiery political documentary about the Bush administration's war on terror, "Fahrenheit 9/11"? And instead of focusing on Bush and Moore, and our complicated feelings toward both of them, just for a second, let's pay attention instead to someone you've likely never heard of: Lila Lipscomb, a gentle-voiced citizen of Flint, Mich., who proudly unfurls an American flag outside her modest home every day, and whose grief gives Moore's film its soul.
"My family is what I consider part of the backbone of America," says Lipscomb quietly. She had long encouraged her children to enter the military (to give them educational and career opportunities, she said, that she couldn't provide), and deeply resented war protesters. Then her son, Michael Pedersen, was sent to Iraq, and died there. She reads his final letter, full of anger and bewilderment against the Iraq war, to the camera. Later, she stands on the sidewalk in front of the White House, a small figure in a sensible pantsuit and sneakers. Her loss suddenly overwhelms her; she's doubled over with sobs, as if the pain is somehow pushing her down.
It's devastating footage, and Moore, for once, just quietly lets us watch. We also see a brief television clip of the president, speaking of the loss of American soldiers in the war overseas. "It pains me," says Bush, looking there's no other way to describe it very unpained.
Disagree with Moore's politics, if you must. Disagree with his filmmaking methods, if you wish. Nonetheless, "Fahrenheit 9/11" rushed into theaters after its surprise grand-prize win at last month's Cannes International Film Festival is an often powerful film, and the most focused work of the director's career. It's got a bit of his trademark humor and a few of his microphone-shoving stunts, but its real story is in Lipscomb's eyes.
Moore ("Bowling for Columbine," "Roger & Me") has his fair share of detractors, and he's earned them his films have been known to play tiddlywinks with the facts, and he's got an unfortunate tendency to center his films on his own outsize personality and to mock the very "regular Americans" with whom he aligns himself. (Parts of "Roger & Me" are downright cruel.)
But he knows how to connect with an audience's righteous anger. Like his previous films, Moore here takes a large subject George W. Bush and his administration, with special focus on the events following the Sept. 11 terror attacks and tackles it from all directions, loosely connecting it all by his own folksy voice-over. While his previous films used Moore's own exploits as a framing device, "Fahrenheit" puts Bush at its center, and takes aim with an arsenal of weaponry that's scathing. It's a documentary with a very specific point of view; propaganda, if you will Moore clearly made this election-year film in the hopes that it would encourage voters to boot Bush from office. His film isn't remotely impartial, and doesn't claim to be.
But Moore isn't alone with his opinions here the film uses interviews with various political figures (including U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, who speaks of the "climate of fear" created by the Bush administration) and published reports from newspapers such as The Washington Post and New York Times to back up its charges. Among the most devastating: financial connections between the families of Bush and Osama bin Laden, intricately detailed. It's not new Craig Unger's book "House of Bush, House of Saud," published earlier this year, examines the relationship and Moore never is entirely clear about the point he's making, but it shows an alarming pattern of interdependency.
And while the heart-wrenching footage of Lipscomb is among the film's most memorable, there's another image that stands in stark, startling contrast. As the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, George W. Bush was reading to a grade-school class in Florida. An aide murmured in his ear the news of the first crash and then, a few moments later, of the second. Caught on video footage, Bush doesn't react. He continues reading to the kids, as the long minutes tick by, his face impassive. You can almost see him getting smaller, as time passes.
It's highly unlikely that lives would have been saved that day if Bush had leapt from his chair into immediate action. And we don't know what was going on behind that stony face perhaps he was simply trying to forestall panic. But as you watch the footage, you can't help but wonder: Is he waiting to be told what to do? And, in absence of instructions, is he incapable of decision? What kind of lesson is he giving those children? Is this how we want a president to act?
How you respond to "Fahrenheit 9/11" will, of course, have much to do with your own political persuasion those already convinced of the wrongs of the Bush administration will enter the theater ready to embrace the film; those opposed likely won't see it at all. But in any case, the film will make you angry, and you'll leave the theater wanting to talk, to argue, to do something. The faces of Lipscomb and a Sept. 11 widow, and a dead baby tossed into a pickup truck in the aftermath of an Iraq bombing, still haunt me, and will haunt you.
Moore, in his in-your-face way, has clearly lit a fire; it'll be fascinating to see what remains when the burning subsides.
Moira Macdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org
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