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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2004
Questions of balance
Whatever their own merits of failings, two powerful new documentaries raise journalistic and political issues that apply to all the news media
A recent news report quoted a U.S. Republican party official who'd been roped into seeing Michael Moore's anti-Bush tirade, "Fahrenheit 9/11." "It wasn't a real documentary," griped the irate Bushie, "because it wasn't balanced."
It's easy to chuckle and think, "not 'balanced' -- like Fox News, right?"
But the comment does suggest a question: Should a good documentary be "balanced"?
Say, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney insists that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, while everyone tasked with finding them points out the absence of any evidence on the ground. Is it "balanced" to include Cheney's view without comment? Or are you just allowing yourself to become part of a deliberate campaign of disinformation?
Is it better for a documentary filmmaker to amass material with a neutral eye, and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions? Or is it better to acknowledge that a filmmaker always has a viewpoint -- and to be upfront about it? A good comparison can be found in two high-profile documentaries opening back-to-back.
Michael Moore's Cannnes-winner "Fahrenheit 9/11," the highest-grossing documentary ever in the United States, looks at 9/11 and the Iraq war and makes no attempt to hide its creator's contempt for the current occupants of the White House.
Then there's veteran documentarian Errol Morris' "The Fog Of War," which took the Oscar for Best Documentary this year. Consisting of an extended interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Morris' documentary is restrained in the extreme, simply letting McNamara explain his reasoning for bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age. Thejudgement, if any, is left to us.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" starts with the dubious circumstances under which George W. Bush became president in the 2000 election (the first network to claim Bush had won Florida was -- surprise, surprise -- Rupert Murdoch's Fox News). It then races through a litany of charges against the administration: that its reaction to the 9/11 attacks was inept; that it deliberately ignored the Saudi Arabian angle, primarily due to long-standing financial ties between the Bush family and Saudi elites (including the Bin Ladens); and that war profiteering by defense contractors like Halliburton, United Defense and others connected to the Bush White House has in part shaped war policy.
For the most part, Moore backs up his claims with facts and refrains from innuendo, although mocking irony is a bludgeon he can't resist wielding. He dismisses Bush's pro-war "Coalition of the Willing" by pointing out that countries like Iceland or Palau won't be much help in a shooting match . . . but doesn't mention the support of Britain, an inconvenient fact that would wreck his punchline.
Some pictures speak for themselves, though. Particularly devastating is footage of the president when he thinks he's off-camera. One shot shows him with his "game" face on, staring steely-eyed into the camera, insisting: "We must stop the terrorist killers!" Then, before you can blink, his jaw relaxes into a grin, he raises a golf club, and concludes his thought: "Now just watch this drive!"
Similarly damaging is footage Moore has obtained, obviously never intended for release, of Bush addressing a Republican Party fundraiser. Smirkingly, he declares: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves . . . and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you . . . my base." Haha.
Moore contrasts this with U.S. Marine Corps recruiters stalking the malls of his hometown of Flint in Michigan, where they find more than enough unemployed males to fill the ranks in Bush's war of choice. Hammering the class-war point home is video footage from a conference on rebuilding Iraq, where an industry speaker notes: "Once the oil starts flowing, there's gonna be a lot of money. The good news is, whatever it costs, the government is gonna pay you." Cue a soldier in Iraq griping how Halliburton drivers make several times his monthly salary.
Compared to previous Moore films and television productions, there are some obvious differences here. One, there's less of him, and his in-your-face attempts to put people on the spot, a la National Rifle Association prez Charlton Heston in "Bowling for Columbine." This is largely due to his fame; now, when people see Moore coming, they run like he's coated in anthrax. On the other hand, his emergence as a liberal/libertarian loudmouth has an upside; people have obviously been providing him video that won't get aired elsewhere, knowing he can get it out there.
Much ink has been spilled over Moore's partisan agenda, but two things need to be made perfectly clear: One, he's willing to take shots in a bipartisan way -- the Democrats are roasted for their failure to support the claims of African-American disenfranchisement in the 2000 vote in Florida. Two, that if Moore seems biased compared with other media, how come there's so much footage here that we've never, ever, seen before? Have "balanced" media shown us uncensored combat in Iraq; civilian and U.S. casualties; chilling remarks by soldiers in the field; Bush's inauguration-day motorcade being pelted by protesters; or Bush Sr. glad-handing row upon row of Saudi royals? Moore even gives us a before-and-after look at the censoring of Dubya's infamous military records.
Whether you agree with Moore's view or not, you owe it to yourself to let him challenge your own views. My own criticism would be the reactive nature of Moore's arguments: In "Bowling for Columbine," he suggested that America's violent foreign policy -- as represented by the Clinton-ordered bombing of Yugoslavia -- was part and parcel of an ingrained culture of violence. Yet, in 2004, Moore now seems to be saying that if we just get rid of Bush, this foreign policy of brute force will change. Well, which is it?
Looking back at Robert McNamara's career in "The Fog Of War," I'd suspect it's the former. McNamara was with the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, among other things, planning the firebombing of Tokyo, where -- as he himself puts it -- "in a single night we burned to death 100,000 civilians . . . men, women, and children."
Now 88, this career bureaucrat, the Donald Rumsfeld of his day, whose can-do arrogance marked his tenure in the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets from 1960 to '67, has been in a reflective mood in his golden years. His testimony here is a mix of warnings, advice, justifications and self-questioning.
Despite all this, though, he always pulls up short of apology or regrets. Take the above firebombing campaign of Japan, which he managed as a statistical analyst for the ultra-hawkish Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who would later propose nuking Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. LeMay, says McNamara, was "focused on only one thing -- target destruction." He explains how "60-90 percent of the population of some Japanese cities were killed," adding that "LeMay said, if we lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals."
McNamara has had the unenviable position of dealing with ethical questions of war firsthand, and not in the abstract. Yet even now he'll admit that "proportionality should be a guideline to war," and that the firebombing may not have been proportional to what the U.S. was trying to achieve -- namely, the destruction of Japan's war industry.
Yet, when it comes to taking responsibility -- when Morris asks McNamara, "Were you aware this was going to happen?" -- the man can only reply: "In a sense, I was part of a mechanism that recommended it." (A defense that didn't work for the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg.)
Michael Moore would have gone for the jugular here, but Morris lets the moment pass.
Then, when McNamara drops the loaded rhetorical question, "What makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?" Morris seems to think that posing the question is enough. But, given Americans' reluctance to examine the morality of aerial bombardment of civilian population centers -- considered an atrocity when the Nazis first tried it at Guernica in Spain in 1937 -- perhaps something more is needed.
Still, Morris provides us with a fascinating walk through history, mixing McNamara's comments with relevant period footage. For Japan film buffs, the flow of sped-up and slo-mo imagery, set to the hypnotic thrum of Philip Glass' score, inevitably recalls "Koyanisqaatsi".
"The Fog of War" examines the Cuban Missile Crisis, escalation in Vietnam, anti-communist attitudes and the Gulf of Tonkin incident (a phantom torpedo attack, which became the flimsy pretext that took America to war in Vietnam in 1964). The resonance of this last event, in light of President George W. Bush's equally unsubstantiated reasons for attacking Iraq, is especially unsettling. Iraq may not be Vietnam, but there is much that should have been learned and obviously hasn't.
Says McNamara: "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values to the merits of our cause, we'd better re-examine our thinking." Something, unfortunately, that the current president is loathe to do. (To be "balanced," Sen. John Kerry -- who served in Vietnam and voted for the Iraq war -- should also have learned something about the dangers of granting unlimited war-making authority to a president.)
It's easy for Morris to go lightly on McNamara; Vietnam is history. One suspects he'd be less "balanced" if it was 1966 -- and his draft number had just been called.
Moore feels the passions of the moment and, with one eye on the November elections, is not afraid to throw "balance" out the window.
As McNamara says about human nature, "We are rational, but reason has its limits." Faced with a simpleton president who sees America's enemies as "bad guys" who "hate freedom" -- ignoring any connection to, say, U.S. support for Israel's expansionist policies or for Arab dictators -- then perhaps that limit has been reached.