Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Unfairenheit 9/11 - a Hitch hatchet job

Christopher 'The Hitch' Hitchens (the former left-wing ex-pat columnist and film-maker, big pal of Martin Amis - not to be confused with his younger brother Peter Hitchens, a wilfully loathesome journalist with the Daily Mail) does an extraordinary hatchet job on Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11'.

The whole thing is well worth reading. See it here.

But here's his wrapping up, after he's pretty much taken the film apart point by point:

"...I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line.

But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft.

If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them.

By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.

At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer. He pitilessly focuses his camera, for minutes after he should have turned it off, on a distraught and bereaved mother whose grief we have already shared. (But then, this is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage."

Read the rest.


martpol said...

Yep, there’s a number of very valid points here (which tend to support my opinion that Michael Moore is a better writer than he is a film-maker). Clearly Moore does use footage unfairly, does have internal inconsistencies and has completely changed his opinion about important things (not that this is necessarily a fault – after all, his whole self-image is “everyman working his way through the issues with wide-eyed disbelief”, not high-principled historian).

This is a more measured and believable critique of Moore than I’ve seen before. Nonetheless, Hitchens himself is, I think, guilty of a few (deliberate?) misunderstandings of what Moore is trying to get at. First, my reading of Moore’s attitude to Saudi Arabia is not that “the Saudis run U.S. policy”, but that the American top brass’s business contacts affect their ability to do their jobs properly. Moore is not naïve enough to assume that the Saudis have a major influence on US foreign policy decisions, and as far as I recall he doesn’t state this. It is, of course, not his fault that the film was made before new information came to light about the Saudi flights.

I agree that the images used of pre-invasion Iraq were way too one-sided, though Moore has since explained that he was trying to paint a picture of a country that did function, that was full of ‘normal’ civilians who could get on with their everyday lives: that they didn’t all live in constant fear of torture or execution. He was trying to redress an imbalance of Iraq’s image. For an analogy, imagine the outcry if a journalist created documentaries about China which gave a one-sided image of a people oppressed by its commie leaders, unable to speak for fear of being carted off for interrogation. In some ways this would be fair (China is one of the countries most frequently lambasted for its human rights record, especially the extraordinary number of executions that take place), but clearly there is a need for a human angle too.

The reason that that Moore focuses on Iraq as a “sovereign nation” is because that is what it is in the eyes of the international community. Iraq never lost its control of most foreign or domestic policies, or its seat in the UN, the League of Arab States, the G77 or OPEC. To say that the imposition of sanctions depreciates your sovereignty is a little disingenuous: sovereignty is a technical term mainly referring to the exercise of power over a geographical area (something which Saddam Hussein managed all too well).

Hitchens also criticises Moore’s appointment of a legal defence team. He doesn’t mention that this behaviour was in reaction to a number of publications/websites that simply claimed that he was lying throughout the film. This is more generally known as defending yourself against libel – but to the anti-Moore movement, it’s known as cowardice or bullying.

The thing is, Moore has some very good general points hidden behind quite a lot of manipulative screen-time. He’s highlighting the hypocrisy of the Iraq invasion and the inability of Bush to govern international affairs in a stable and sustainable way. Hitchens finds that Saddam supported somebody who helped conduct the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; but the Saudi government has long supported Al Qaida, the perpetrators of the far more serious attacks on 11 September 2001. The answer is not to blow them up as well, clearly, but to put diplomatic pressure on countries which don’t work for human rights and stability. Only problem is, that’s a less immediate and heroic solution which could take many years of painful progress, instead of a few months of ‘successful’ war followed by years of instability and frustration. We only need to look at the appalling state of Afghanistan 3 years after the war there – still the country with the worst access to clean water in the world, with little food security, a life expectancy of 43, ruled in large part by separatist warlords, lacking any sense of national identity, lacking any debate on women’s rights, and where the only guarantee of a living income is to produce illicit drugs – for evidence of that.

Brit said...

Martin -

Yes, that "everyman working his way through the issues with wide-eyed disbelief" approach is what saves Bowling for Columbine from being a complete waste of time.

In that he started out with the belief that the proliferation of guns was the chief reason for the high murder rate in the US. When he went to Canada and found that it had just as many guns but none of the murder, he had to abandon or at least modify the argument. Which he got away with because it was more an investigation or exploration than a polemic.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a political polemic against Bush though, timed to coincide with the election. But it's disguised as a documentary.

It does make some very good points. There's something very wrong with the way that you're allowed to be both on the board of Halliburton (which Cheney is) and making lots of money out of military action, while at the same time being involved in the decision to take military action. There are many other valid criticisms throughout.

But for every valid point there's an awful lot of rubbish, and more selective editing, manipulation of facts and images and innuendo than the FBI could ever manage even in Moore's wildest conspiracy theories.

Particularly useless was the stunt at the end where he tried to get senators to sign up their children for the army. Say what? Nobody can sign up their grown children for anything - the children have to do that themselves.

His concluding point was that the brave soldiers are out there making a heroic sacrifice for us, and that we owe them for their courage and integrity. Which is fine, except that he's just spent the previous hour of the film telling us: a) that they're all uneducated trailer-trash duped by clever recruiters into signing up; and b) that, thanks to the example set by their immoral president, they've been warped into human rights-abusing sadists who need locking up.

Similarly, Bush is both an illiterate idiot who spends all his time on vacation; and a scheming machiavellian master-criminal plotting intricate ways of making money from complicated oil deals.

There are some funny bits. But it's not a serious film. It can't be serious because it has absolutely no balance. Not one interviewee opposes his view. Yet there must be some people in the US who disagree, othrwise Kerry would be President now. There's no mention of how quick and effective the removal of Saddam was. Or of any of the crimes committed by Saddam. There's no mention that all the intelligence from every country asserted that Saddam did have WMDs.

At the start of the film, it is suggested that responsibility for 9/11 be placed on Bush for not taking terrorism seriously enough. So Osama doesn't have any responsibilty then? Twenty minutes later, Moore shows Bush taking terrorism seriously at last, and immediately damns him for 'scaremongering'.

Every single moment is skewered to his general bias. He mockingly lists the piddly 'coalition' countries obviously coralled into supporting the invasion by the US(Afghanistan, Iceland etc). But somehow neglects to mention Britain, Poland, Spain and Australia.

You think Saving Private Ryan whitewashes over the existence of Britain? Watching this you wouldn't know Tony Blair existed, or that we've got some soldiers in Iraq too. Are our soldiers all poor black kids duped into service too?

Michael Moore has got some important things to say. But he needs an editor, and if he wants to be serious, he needs to acknowledge that every story has two sides.

martpol said...

Very good summary of Moore, Andrew. I agree with almost all of what you say.

But... "all the intelligence from every country asserted that Saddam did have WMDs"? I suppose so, in that "assert" in debating terms means "claims without evidence". On the contrary, most intelligence sources didn't seriously believe he had any WMDs at the time of the invasion last year. Had them in the past maybe, or, in the sort of language that the CIA ended up using, had the capacity to start planning to make them again if he so wished.