Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
Give Me Back My Country:
6-30-04 Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
In Network, the 1976 caustic black comedy about television, programming executive Diana Christensen (played
by Faye Dunaway in her Oscar winning performance), helps turn newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch in his
posthumous Oscar winning role) into the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. Nightly, opening “The Howard Beale
Show,” he rants and raves and gets so wound up he collapses in a heap on the floor. In order to create the show
in the first place, Diana has convinced her boss that it will be a hit. This after witnessing Beale lose it and exhort
people with the famous “I’m mad as Hell” speech on his nightly newscast.
“Howard Beale got up there last night and said what every American feels, that he’s tired of all the bullshit. He’s
articulating the popular rage,” Diana says to her boss.
While watching Fahrenheit 9/11, I kept thinking about how Michael Moore has become the Howard Beale
of our generation – but with humor to help the rage go down easier. I’m not sure that there’s yet much “popular
rage” to articulate, though. Rage against the machine has not been much in evidence for reasons that Moore
guesses at as the film begins (“Was it all a dream?” he asks about the Bush team helping themselves to the
Presidency while the Democrats stayed oddly complacent).
The picture’s David (Moore) vs. Goliath (media corporations) trouble getting distributed and rated has certainly
helped build insatiable curiosity about it. There were internet rumors that conservative groups were buying out
theatres with advance tickets and the picture was playing to empty houses and announcements that a response
documentary painting Michael Moore as un-American would arrive by the fall. President Bush was said to be
considering a defamation of character lawsuit. A conservative think tank claimed the film was nothing more than
political propaganda for John Kerry and wanted equal time or the film recalled.
All this was discussed and relished by the people lined up where I saw the film on opening night at the Landmark
Cinema at the Century Mall in Chicago. All shows were sold out for the entire weekend (and by Sunday night
www.michaelmoore.com had posted photos of the lines snaking through the inside of the Century Mall). Even
before the movie started it was the great film event of the year – and felt a bit like waiting for the start of a
Grateful Dead or Phish concert. If nothing else, the film’s arrival and immediate success in the midst of the
standard summer action/sci-fi fare is astonishing. Who could have predicted a summer blockbuster with a brain?
Fahrenheit 9/11 details the events leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attack and how Moore purports that the
Bush administration used the tragedy to dupe the American public into going into war in Iraq. It’s Moore’s best
film to date. Not only because this time out he’s put a leash on his tendency to manage our responses and make
stuff happen – though he can’t help himself as the film nears its conclusion – but also because his subject matter
oozes with so much swill it makes J.R. Ewing and the whole “Dallas” clan look tame. All he needs to do is
present the material in a sensible fashion and like dominoes, the confusion and mystery of the last three years
give way to anger, depression and incredulity.
When Moore does that Fahrenheit 9/11 is horrifically funny and sad at the same time. Most powerful: blacking
out the screen while leaving the audio track during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center while omitting the
actual footage followed by New Yorkers gazing upwards in horror. Moore has resisted the urge to show
repeated Bush-isms throughout the film and he doesn’t really need to. Early in the film he twice repeats the
footage of Bush sitting in the child's classroom after receiving the news that the nation was under attack and
doing nothing but looking uncomfortable that seems to powerfully suggest, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” or
better still, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”
Fahrenheit 9/11 is like a cattle prod – and the dual emotions in many of the sequences leave you wrung out –
often you’re laughing derisively one moment, then cringing in repulsion the next. The repeated jolts come so
often in the first half that by the time Moore begins to personalize and deepen the film by getting into the horror
of the war in Iraq with interviews with Lila Lipscomb, mother of a solider killed in the war – you don’t feel them
fully anymore. A sadness takes over.
My oldest friend had been waiting months to see the film and called me late on the night Fahrenheit opened.
“From a certain point – I think when they started showing those hardcore recruiters going into the shopping
malls and signing up poor black kids – I just sat there quietly crying for the rest of the movie,” she said, “I’m a
diehard liberal and to see it all laid out like that was ultimately so depressing. I need a day to get pissed off
That seemed to be the stunned reaction of the audience that I saw the film with. After vigorous applause at the
film’s conclusion, the crowds quietly shuffled out and then slowly conversations heated up and debate became
more intense. In purely filmic terms, Fahrenheit 9/11 does what the best films do: they get the whole world
talking. Whether Michael Moore has articulated the “popular rage” remains to be seen but he’s certainly raised
the stakes – an extraordinary accomplishment for a filmmaker.
Michael Moore Speaks Loud and Clear for the Counter-Culture