Magazine article The New Yorker

George & Me; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

George & Me; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

In Michael Moore's new documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," George W. Bush sets his jaw, leans forward, and tells a group of reporters that terrorism must be destroyed. Then, turning away, he says, "Now watch this drive," and tees off. A golfer, a bird hunter, a sportive wit at gatherings of the super-rich ("Some people call you the lite. I call you my base"), the President is often at play in "Fahrenheit 9/11." In this incendiary and viciously funny attack on the Bush Administrationa whirlwind of political charges, sinister implications, and derisionthe President comes off as a betrayer and a fool who has all the substance of a stuffed doll. Moore accuses Bush of handing part of America's sovereignty to the Saudis; he implies that the president, after 9/11, was more effective at frightening the electorate than at pursuing the terrorists. Given its mixture of anguish and contempt, "Fahrenheit 9/11" can't miss becoming a hit, with the result that the Republican Party and its allies will be all over Michael Moore for months. I have some difficulties with Moore myself, and I'm not entirely impressed by the standing ovation and the Palme d'Or that the film received recently at Cannes, where the audience may have been all too eager to applaud its own detestation of the United States. Still, this is Moore's most powerful moviethe largest in scope, the most resourceful and skillful in meansand the best things in it have little to do with his usual ideological take on American power and George Bush. In the last third of the film, Moore gets hold of a genuine protagonist, and he has the good sense to stay out of her way.

Her name is Lila Lipscomb, and he finds her in Flint, Michigan, the home town to which he obsessively returnsFlint, the former industrial paradise destroyed by General Motors, whose emblematic decision in the eighties to close many of its plants in the city arrived like a Biblical curse. Years have gone by since the ruination, and Lila Lipscomb is still in there fightingshe works at a non-profit agency, helping the unemployed. Lipscomb, who is white, is married to an African-American, and the couple have several children, two of whom have served in the armed forces. A conservative Democrat who used to hate antiwar protesters, she describes her family as part of the "backbone" of the country. She's not an intellectual or analytical person, but she knows who she is and what she wants to say.

All this is established in two initial interviews. Then the unimaginable happens: one of Lila's sons, Sergeant Michael Pedersen, dies in the Iraq war. And, as we find out in a letter from Pedersen that Lila reads to her family, he died without knowing what in the world he was doing in the desert. At which point, Lila gives way to unappeasable grief. Dazed and untethered, she makes a pilgrimage to the White House. In a way, she becomes a more authentic version of Michael Moore, who is always seeking to confront power. In Washington, Moore and his crew follow her around; we can guess that he urged her along, and, sure enough, some skeptical womana strangerrushes into the frame and says, "This is all staged." Lila's response to the intruder is devastating; it goes beyond eloquence. And at last, in the street, she loses her strength, unable to move. Why my son? As everyone who's been through the experience says, nothing can console a parent for the death of a child. And when death is robbed of meaning, and tinged with betrayal, the pain flows over the lip of ordinary grief and engulfs us all.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" has a kind of necessary shock value: it reveals the underside of the war, the bloody messes not shown on news broadcasts. Moore makes use of footage given to him by American and foreign cameramenscenes of Americans who were blown apart near Baghdad, or of maimed and nerve-shattered men trying to put their lives back together in a Washington hospital or at their home base. One soldier achieves a memorable clarity as he says, fighting pain and incapacity, that he's disgusted by the lying way the Republican Party conducts its business. …

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