A political film that’s raising temperaturesMichael Moore had walked into the auditorium of the National Assembly’s Members Office Building around 10 p.m. Monday, the wave of sheer love might have lifted him off the floor.
The American filmmaker’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” ― a demolition job on the presidency of George W. Bush ― was about to be screened for an extremely receptive audience. The 440-seat auditorium was jammed with students, peace activists, socialist legislators (the Democratic Labor Party sponsored the screening) and even some former political prisoners, elderly men who’d been locked up for decades by South Korea’s military regimes. A famous actress was there ― Moon So-ri of “Oasis” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife.” (“I’m here today because I like Michael Moore,” she told the crowd. “You just cannot help loving Moore when you see his films.”) For those in the crowd who’d been working to stop the Korean troop dispatch to Iraq, Mr. Moore’s anti-war film was a shot in the arm.
“If we think we should do something for history, tonight is greatly meaningful to us,” Kim Hye-gyeong, head of the Democratic Labor Party, said before the screening. “Let’s end this dirty war.”
All the seats were taken; dozens of people stood in the aisles and stairwells for two hours to watch Mr. Moore’s angry, kaleidoscopic polemic. People clapped, laughed, muttered in disbelief and wiped tears away.
When it was over, the normally glib Democratic Labor Party lawmaker Roh Hoe-chan seemed overwhelmed. “I’m just so excited by the film,” he said. “This is a film that makes you cry through laughter... I want to publicize this movie with all my strength.” College student Lee Eun-joo, 23, called it “thrilling and exhilarating.”
Students, activists, the movie crowd ― of course they liked it. Too bad there wasn’t a conservative in the house. Was there?
It turned out that Go Jin-hwa of the Grand National Party, the party that’s the United States’s staunchest ally in the Assembly, was in the audience. He’d skipped out on his party’s convention that night to see the movie. What had he thought of it?
“Mr. Bush indeed seems to have a small brain,” Mr. Go said.
In America, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” like George W. Bush himself, appears to have become a subject with which to end conversations and start up a lot of sullen glares. People who loathe Michael Moore are amazed that his fans buy into his act. People who despise George W. Bush are astonished that half the country can’t see what’s in front of their eyes: that this is a guy you’d think twice about hiring to run a used car lot.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” has already sold more tickets than any documentary in American history (before this, the record was held by Mr. Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”). It won the top prize (and a long standing ovation) at the Cannes International Film Festival. It opened in the United States in late June and was the country’s top-grossing film its first weekend, although it was soon surpassed by “Spider-Man 2.”
Sellout crowds and local theater records were reported not just in liberal enclaves in New York, but in military towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina, where one theater owner estimated that more than half of its audiences were soldiers and their families. There are many stories of cheers and even standing ovations following screenings. (Rousing applause greeted another Korean advance screening, at Seoul Cinema.)
The movie is a lively, opinionated pastiche of interviews, news clips, sight gags, horrifying scenes of war, revealing candid footage of Mr. Bush and his advisers, and on-camera stunts (Mr. Moore tries to get U.S. Congressmen to enlist their children in the military). It also has lots of startling revelations ―almost all of which had been reported previously somewhere or other, but not in a box-office hit.
It was probably news to most who saw it, for instance, that on the night of the disputed 2000 presidential election, the consultant at Fox News who called the state of Florida for Mr. Bush was Mr. Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis. Or that Mr. Bush was on vacation for 42 percent of his first eight months in office.
Or that a friend of Mr. Bush’s from his days in the Texas Air National Guard, James Bath, was hired as a money manager by Osama bin Laden’s family ― and that Mr. Bath, in turn, invested money in one of Mr. Bush’s energy companies. Or that the White House, in releasing a document pertaining to Mr. Bush’s Guard service, blacked Mr. Bath’s name out of it. The relevance of such facts can be debated by people of good will, but it’s certainly astonishing to hear them rattled off in succession.
The material most damaging to Mr. Bush, however, might simply be moments when the cameras are rolling.
Seconds before announcing the invasion of Iraq on live television, he’s goofing and rolling his eyes for the camera crew. On a golf course, he delivers a stern message about fighting the terrorists, picks up his club and says, “Now watch this drive.” On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush is at a “photo op” in a Florida grade school classroom, reading a book called “My Pet Goat,” when his chief of staff tells him that a second plane has struck the World Trade Center. For several excruciating minutes, the camera lingers on Mr. Bush’s face as he sits there, doing nothing. The overall picture is of a man whose glibness is exceeded by his incompetence.
Bush supporters have torn into “Fahrenheit 9/11,” alleging that it takes its facts out of context. Mr. Moore’s Web site has a point-by-point defense of the film’s assertions, citing sources; he says “three teams of lawyers and the venerable one-time fact-checkers from The New Yorker” vetted the film.
There are sites on the Internet that attack the movie in just as much detail as Mr. Moore defends it. Some of the criticisms seem to arise from a sense-of-humor malfunction. For instance, a site called “Fifty-nine Deceits of Fahrenheit 9/11” points out that Katherine Harris, who during the 2000 election was both Florida’s secretary of state and a Bush campaign official, was not literally “the vote-countin’ woman.” “The Florida Secretary of State merely certifies the reported vote,” the site says. Well.
Perhaps more substantial are criticisms of how Mr. Moore depicts Iraq before the invasion. The atrocities of Saddam Hussein, for instance, are never mentioned. “Fahrenheit 9/11’s” brief montage of scenes from pre-war Iraq is idyllic: kids flying a kite; people chatting happily; a boy at a barber shop. Not a torture chamber in sight.
Asked about this by the magazine Entertainment Weekly, Mr. Moore replied: Who on the planet doesn’t know Saddam Hussein was a torturer?
“Kurt Vonnegut in [his novel] ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ isn’t criticized for not showing the horrors of the Nazi regime even though he shows that the people who we firebombed in Dresden were essentially old men, women, and children,” Moore said in that interview. “Is he doing something dishonest or wrong?
“I know it upsets a lot of people in the media that I’m not playing ball, that I’m not showing the images that they showed [of Saddam’s oppression]. I know it’s embarrassing to them because anybody who sees my film now knows that you were only presented with one side.”
Or, put another way: During the build-up to the war, what American TV viewer ever saw an image of a laughing Iraqi child?
“Fahrenheit 9/11” opened yesterday on 80 screens in Korea, 25 of them in Seoul. A typical Korean release opens on 200 screens; nevertheless, “Fahrenheit 9/11” ranked fifth in the nation this week in advance online ticket sales.
Korean media have been keenly interested in the movie. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper called Mr. Moore “the hottest man in America.” A recent column in the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper (“U.S. society is the problem”) used the subject to urge America to take a closer look at itself. Korea’s most popular movie magazine, Cine 21 ― part of the Hankyoreh group ― ran an eight-page feature package (“The temperature where the truth is burning ― ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’”) that included a profile of Mr. Moore and a roundup of other American documentaries dealing with President Bush and the war. The magazine Film 2.0 ran a rave review by the critic Kim Yeong-jin; a smaller magazine, Movie Week ran an article with the headline “Spit on Bush’s face!”
In the daily newspaper Herald Business, the well-known film critic Sim Young-seop criticized Mr. Moore for his “simplistic” editing ― cutting directly from an Iraqi child to an exploding bomb, for instance ― pointing out that it was a technique Sergei Eisenstein had invented to propagate communism.
“But the thing is,” she wrote, “this campaign-to-defeat-Bush documentary opened now, when that ‘idiot’ is in office and slightly ahead in the election. If ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is really art, it’s not because of its content, but because of its timing ― the audacity to throw a spear right into the core, in the very middle of a storm, and the openness of the country in accepting it.”
How the public responds to it, of course, will soon be seen. The Democratic Labor Party, for what it’s worth, hopes it will have an impact on at least one Korean. “The one who has to see this movie tonight is President Roh Moo-hyun,” Democratic Labor Party spokesman Park Yong-jin said at Monday night’s screening. “We sent an invitation today to the Blue House.”
by David Moll
Staff writer Chun Su-jin contributed to this report.