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and Nickolas Perry
When he revealed his hope that the Cannes-anointed Fahrenheit 9/11 might help defeat—or, rather, redefeat—George W. Bush, Michael Moore suggested that he has far grander ambitions for his latest broadside than he did for its predecessors. Even before the film opened, however, the writer-director had accomplished something remarkable: He made the first political documentary to achieve the prerelease buzz of a summer blockbuster. Like most overhyped movies, Fahrenheit 9/11 has its moments yet is something of a letdown. But you have to see it anyway—if only so you won’t be left out of any movie conversations between now and Spider-Man 2.
Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t exactly George & Me, but it does proceed in the first person, with occasional cameos by its auteur. The opening act quickly depicts the battle for Florida’s 2000 electoral votes, a debacle narrated by a mock-incredulous Moore: “Was it a dream?” he muses, before sketching Bush’s laid-back opening months as president, during which he was on vacation a reported 42 percent of the time. Only then do the credits roll, intercut with footage of Dubya and his leading advisers preparing for TV appearances. The Bush administration is ready for its close-up, and Osama bin Laden is about to provide the motivation.
Well, not quite ready. Fahrenheit 9/11 shows—though not in real time—the seven minutes that George W. sat in a Florida elementary-school classroom after learning that two jetliners had hit the World Trade Center. He doesn’t look stunned, just aimless, apparently lost without a handler to tell him what to do. Moore, however, speculates that the president was wondering how to defend his family’s extensive dealings with the Saudi aristocracy. At that moment, such a line of thought seems unlikely, but Moore’s conjecture does set up a summary of the warm interrelationships between the big-money men of Houston and Riyadh’s petroleum oligarchies. These connections suggest why, when U.S. airspace was locked down after the Sept. 11 attacks, 142 Saudis—some of them with the surname bin Laden—were allowed to fly home.
This section of the film will probably be the most surprising to those who haven’t read extensively about the Bush family. Moore reveals, for example, that when the White House released some of the president’s National Guard records in 2004, it blacked out the name of one of Dubya’s buddies: James R. Bath. It turns out that Bath grew up to be the bin Ladens’ Texas money manager, and the likely source of Saudi petrodollars to prop up George W.’s failing oil-exploration firms. These days, the Bushes call Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar “Bandar Bush” and the Saudis own an estimated 7 percent of the U.S. economy. Moore acknowledges that much of this information came from Craig Unger, the author of House of Bush, House of Saud (and the former editor of Washington Newsworks, a long-gone local alt weekly). In fact, Unger gets more onscreen time than any other journalistic source.
From the Bush-Saud connection, Moore travels to Afghanistan, homeland security, the Patriot Act, Iraq, and—of course—his economically challenged hometown of Flint, Mich. The film cools down as it switches from conspiracy theory to human interest, following a woman who used to believe that the military was a boon to blue-collar kids in high-unemployment areas. Although Moore can’t help but periodically interject gags, jokey clips, and ironic song snippets, what he’s doing here is basically the same thing as twaddle-driven mainstream TV networks: fogging the bigger picture with sentiment.
Moore is at a disadvantage, of course, in making a film in which many of the issues are still breaking news. (There’s only the vaguest mention, for example, of the torture, rape, and murder of Iraqis, Afghans, and others by U.S. troops and contractors.) The director draws intriguing lines between a lot of characters and topics, but only in pencil. He certainly hasn’t put it all together for the voters he hopes to sway. Indeed, Moore himself hasn’t even decided whether Dubya is an evil genius or a bumbling fool—although the film clips strongly suggest the latter. The movie will surely amplify some people’s doubts about Bush, but it probably wouldn’t have much effect if his reputation weren’t already sliding. Fahrenheit 9/11 intends to be a killer blow to Bush 43’s presidency, but it’s really just a well-deserved kick in the shins.
A breathless cinematic abridgement of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’ book, The Hunting of the President will likely be overshadowed not only by Moore’s film but also by Bill Clinton’s new autobiography. This is less than tragic, since writer-directors Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry’s polemical documentary is less than exemplary. Still, the Morgan Freeman–narrated film is a provocative introduction to one of the great scandals in American political history: not that Clinton was a slut, but that a good-sized—if not vast—right-wing conspiracy spent more than $60 million in taxpayers’ money to prove it.
Veteran TV producer Thomason is a longtime Clinton pal, and he was involved in one of the murky but seemingly minor infamies of the 42nd president’s administration, the White House–travel–office mess. That passing furor goes unmentioned in The Hunting of the President, as do several other tawdry incidents. The film is only 89 minutes long, however, and can be excused for focusing on the main event: the well-bankrolled effort to magnify a few petty Arkansas improprieties (and some parochial resentments) into a sequel to the Watergate scandal, this time with a Democratic president humiliated and overthrown.
It didn’t quite work, in large part because Whitewater itself seems to have amounted to nothing more than a bad investment idea badly administered by Clinton crony James McDougal—here characterized by ex-wife Susan McDougal as a charming manic-depressive. Susan McDougal, who went to jail rather than testify against Clinton, emerges as the film’s heroine. She describes the threatening tactics of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s minions as well as the abuse she endured in prison, where she was forced to wear a red outfit identifying her as someone who had murdered her own children. Her most hilarious anecdote recalls how the prosecutors decided that she must be in love with Clinton and thus would be happy to eliminate the competition by implicating his wife.
More of the hunted president’s defenders, including former Clinton White House insiders Sidney Blumenthal, Paul Begala, and James Carville, analyze the overzealous tactics and the mainstream press’s unethical (and just plain incompetent) piling-on. They’re less compelling, however, when interpreting the widespread hostility toward Clinton. Did the Washington establishment really loathe Clinton because—as Blumenthal asserts—it considered him “white trash”? And what exactly was up with such bizarre Arkansas Clinton-phobes as Everett Ham, a member of the shadowy and perhaps utterly insignificant Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America, and Larry Case and Larry Nichols, who stage-managed the Gennifer Flowers sexual accusations?
Thomason and Perry allot very little time to Flowers or, remarkably, Monica Lewinsky, emphasizing instead Paula Jones—the only one of the three who may not actually have had sex with President Bill. The documentary also excludes most of Clinton’s prominent detractors. (The directors have explained—though not in the film—that most of them declined to appear.) We’re left with David Brock, the former right-wing attack dog who has since repudiated his anti-Clinton work, and Jerry Falwell, who turns up to deny that he ever personally accused Clinton of committing any crimes. (He merely helped finance The Clinton Chronicles, a movie that charged the president with collusion in drug smuggling and murder.)
An increasingly common but disturbing practice in contemporary documentaries is the use of historical footage that appears relevant but is never identified. Thomason and Perry take this technique several missteps further, interjecting clips from old newsreels and vintage Hollywood flicks. (So does Moore, of course, but the strategy better suits his mostly jocular tone.) When Clinton’s gubernatorial chief of staff, Betsey Wright, notes that her boss attracted lots of groupies, for example, there’s a quick cut to screaming Beatlemaniacs. If this were just a movie about a guy who got in trouble for lying about blowjobs, such stunts would be legit. But they’re a little too flippant if The Hunting of the President really does, as it claims, recount a chapter in an ongoing scheme to subvert American democracy that includes redistricting in Texas, a recall in California, and, of course, those contested Florida electoral votes that led directly to Fahrenheit 9/11.CP