The Right-Wing Docsby Williams Cole
The phenomenal success, both politically and financially, of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 made it only a matter of time before the well-funded right would put forth a slew of responses. While there is no one film from the right now that is poised to become a widely distributed theatrical documentary, there are tepid attempts to theatrically release films like In the Face of Evil—a hagiography of Reagan that conflates Stalin, Hitler, and parts of Islam—or Celsius 41.11:The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die, one of the films that specifically refutes Fahrenheit.
In fact, it seems that Moore’s film caught the Republican establishment and voting public so off guard that many of the recent documentaries from the right either try to specifically refute the film or advertise themselves as an “alternative to Fahrenheit 9/11.” By most accounts, documentary film with any critical merit has largely escaped the arsenal of the American right. Whether intentionally or not, most quality political documentary in the last decades has been from critical and investigative filmmakers who tend to have a left perspective. It’s evident that a mixture of 9/11, the war in Iraq, disenchantment with mainstream media, and the Bush administration’s extremism has created a resurgence of interest in this perspective, but it remains to be seen if after the election such interest will hold. Meantime, there is suddenly a spate of films coming from a right-wing perspective, most marketed via the Internet with grassroots strategies, that are on a par with Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed.
George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, for example, is not only being heavily promoted through evangelical grassroots networks but also had a wide broadcast on all the Christian cable channels. Its faux investigative style, replete with an on-camera hostess (“Is George W. Bush’s faith real or just political opportunism?” she asks), is saccharine in music, style, and reenactment but frightening when one realizes that it cleverly appeals to a strong evangelical base that does not believe in the separation of church and state (actually, it argues that the founding fathers didn’t really intend that). Fahrenhype 9/11 is a bit more effective in that there is minimal narration (by actor Ron Silver—already a bad choice) and some powerful interviews with some people that were in Moore’s film. But while Fahrenhype seems to refute most of the major points in Moore’s film, the credits list only two researchers, whereas Moore had hired the former chief fact-checker for the famously fastidious New Yorker. At this point, the right has not produced a film with the resonance or cultural power of Fahrenheit 9/11. If this small sampling of films is any indication, the right has a ways to go in terms of style, analysis, and incisive content before that happens. Of course, that’s assuming that the intended audiences for these films care about such things. And that’s the scariest part of all.
A follow-up of sorts to The Weather Underground, the other film about a homegrown group of militant revolutionaries, filmmaker Robert Stone’s doc is an archive footage-based assessment of the bizarre Symbionese Liberation Army and the equally surreal story of its kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. It tells of Hearst’s subsequent bout with Stockholm syndrome, which allegedly made her become a gun-toting member of the SLA (she famously called her fiancée a “sexist, ageist pig” in a message to the national media), and is a historical film engineered to watch in the theater. With a drilling, spooky sound mix, the film gives a nearly day-to-day account of how the SLA came about in the early 1970s and how its essential lack of vision and organization led this small band of middle-class radicals to implode after an unbelievable coup in its early actions (including demanding, and getting, a food distribution program for the poor in California). The film lacks something without interviews with Hearst or some of the incarcerated SLA members but is nonetheless a compelling ride into the crazy ’70s.
Danny Schechter, the notorious “news dissector,” brings us this excoriation of the mainstream media during the onset and coverage of the Iraq-mire we now know. Like Outfoxed, this film quite justifiably uses the Fair Use doctrine to freely use footage from network and cable news channels in order to criticize that coverage. Nevertheless, various corporate media initiated litigation on copyright grounds. With humor and a comprehensive assessment of everything from embeds and “militainment” to the “if it bleeds it leads” journalistic approach and the “Foxification” of all news coverage of Iraq, WMD is the kind of alternative film that needs Fahrenheit 9/11-type juice behind it so it can reach those not already in the choir.