Politics with your Popcorn?

Agent Hubbard: What if what they really want is for us to ... put soldiers on the street and -- and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over... [Denzel Washington, The Siege (1998)]

Michael Moore: Oh, well, see, there's not that many Congressmen that've got kids over there, and in fact, only one. So we just thought maybe you guys should send your kids there first. What do you think about that idea? [Michael Moore to Congressman John Tanner, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)]

On first glance, the publicity over Fahrenheit 9/11 gives the impression that the local multiplex is about to be deluged by a flood of pre-election political manifestos -- which may well be the case. But considering the current historical moment, the slate of political films is still missing one crucial, if ironic, element: fiction.

The U.S. is engaged in two major foreign wars, one of which has disintegrated into a full quagmire; U.S. foreign policy, formerly expansionist and covert, now expansionist and bumbling, has enflamed anti-American passions worldwide; GIs are coming home in body bags; and the President is engulfed by scandals surrounding CIA reports, leaks of agents' names and crony deals to Halliburton. In a similar moment in the mid-1970s, American theaters were filled with dark, political and anti-establishment narratives. By contrast, Hollywood's fictional fare in 2004 is mostly distraction and fluff. Several projects are bucking the trend, however, and though they're all in the historically un-sexy documentary genre, that genre itself is undergoing a renaissance.

Michael Moore's latest offering is grabbing headlines for the moment, but coming up quietly behind him are other, lower profile offerings. Among these are the John Kerry biopic Tour Of Duty; Silver City, John Sayles' fictional account of an ultra-conservative political dynasty; The Hunting of the President, which investigates the impeachment of Bill Clinton; You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a profile of historian and peace activist Howard Zinn; and Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. Uncovered, which doesn't open in theaters until August, has already sold an astonishing 100,000 copies online.

Premiering at the Human Rights Film Festival is the anti-capitalist screed The Corporation and Persons Of Interest -- a hard-hitting look at the post 9/11 round-up of over 5,000 Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim men (of whom, only three men were ultimately charged, and two of those were acquitted). From the entertainment end of the spectrum comes a major studio release, The Yes Men, which follows the antics of a rabble-rousing crew of political performance artists who manage to crash WTO meetings disguised as entrepreneurs. In one scene they demonstrate an indispensible contraption for the modern CEO -- an outfit that includes a monitor for his/her overseas sweatshops.

Entering its second month in New York theaters is the searing Control Room, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim (co-director of another fly-on-the-wall masterpiece Startup.Com). Tracking the Al Jazeera TV network through the first phase of the Iraq invasion, the film provides a masterful dissection of modern media's role in fomenting jingoism, hiding casualties, and falling into obedient sycophancy. The action takes place in the U.S.-military-manned CentCom (Central Command), where information is disseminated on the war's progress. The Al Jazeera correspondents' suspicion and cynicism stand in marked contrast with their Western colleague's docile head-nodding. When an Al Jazeera correspondent is killed by US fire, in an incident perceived in the Muslim world as reprisal for showing footage of captured American GIs, all the reporters in CentCom are united in grief and anger. But when the cameras start rolling, CNN correspondent Tom Mintier's questions seem oddly restrained -- tacitly acknowledging an invisible line that can't be crossed.

Control Room's singular achievement is in bringing out the invisible voices of the Muslim world. Veteran Al Jazeera journalists Hassan Ibrahim and Samir Khader give voice to the widening gulf that separates American self-perception from the rest of the world's views. As Americans roll into Baghdad, US television broadcasts images of the stars and stripes being draped over Saddam's statue (a PR miscalculation that was later reversed). Meanwhile, Al Jazeera broadcasts images of an angry Iraqi man shouting at the camera, "America, You lose! You lose the war." Staring at the latter image, Hassan wryly notes, "And these are the Shias who are 'receiving the Americans with flowers.'" At another point in the film, frustrated by an endless barrage from US media, Hassan says, "You are the most powerful nation on earth, I agree. You can defeat everyone, I agree. But don't ask us to love it as well!"

Control Room also achieves a remarkable feat of balance by including Lt. Josh Rushing, CentCom's press officer, as a principal character. As the war progresses, we see Rushing struggling to wrap his mind around the realities of the war. Although critical of Al Jazeera, he finally admits, "Just like Fox plays to American patriotism, it benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism." On the night of Al Jazeera's controversial broadcast of footage of dead GIs, Rushing says that the footage had made him "sick." But in the same moment, he also admits that similarly grisly scenes of dead Iraqis had not bothered him. Moments like this highlight the urgency of showing Control Room to as wide an audience as possible. When the film was first on the festival circuit, director Noujaim was warned that only Canadian companies might pick it up. But as she acknowledged happily in a recent interview, "People are hungry right now for this kind of information, hungry to understand what the other side is feeling and thinking about."

Will films like Control Room, Persons Of Interest, Tour Of Duty, Silver City, and The Yes Men make a discernible impact on the November elections? It largely depends on whether their distribution is national, or limited to the usual liberal/progressive enclaves of the East and West Coast -- leaving the "flyover states" without an alternative perspective. At the New York screening of Control Room which I attended, the audience hissed when Rumsfeld appeared on screen. Those moments reminded me that I was sitting with an audience of the converted. It's critical that these films are made available to heartland and swing state audiences as well. The film that has the best potential for such wide distribution is, of course, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- not only because of the publicity garnered by the Palme D'Or win and the dustup with Eisner, but because of Moore's particular style as a filmmaker. The same penchant for flagrant stunts and connect-the-dots story-telling which alienates urban elites (who dismiss him as "self-promotional"), endears him to middle America. Both in books like Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country?, and in his films, such as Bowling For Columbine (the most successful documentary in US history), Moore has strategically gone after the hearts of the heartland.

When Michael Moore ambushes Congressmen and urges them to enlist their children to fight in Iraq, when he rents a truck and circles Capitol Hill reading out portions of the Patriot Act (to underscore the fact that none of the Congressmen read the Act before passing it), these are moments that will resonate with the silent majority. If polls are to be believed, Americans are still divided (though the balance shifts every day) over whether war in Iraq was "worthwhile." But when Moore highlights the fact that Black, Latino and working-class Whites are the cannon fodder, while the ruling elite gets wealthy on war reconstruction, he has found a resonant argument that will appeal to the widest majority and has the best chance of swaying the November elections.

Although there is reason to cheer the arrival of these documentaries, it is worth noting that the present moment of national crisis has not inspired major fictional offerings from mainstream studios. Although activists wishfully point to The Day After Tomorrow, global warming merely serves as an excuse to fulfill the director's masturbatory fantasies of knocking down New York landmarks (again!). Otherwise, the only recent Hollywood offerings about American military misadventures were Tears of the Sun and Black Hawk Down, both of which depicted evangelical and heroic US military intervention. In a similar moment in the 1970s, Vietnam, Kent State, Attica, and the Watergate scandal inspired a dark anti-establishment and anti-war mood at movie theaters. This found expression in films as diverse as All the President's Men (Watergate), The Conversation (Phone-tapping), Network (corrupt media), Deer Hunter (suicidal Vietnam vets), Serpico (corrupt cops), Three Days Of The Condor (corrupt CIA), Apocalypse Now (trigger-happy lunatics in Vietnam), and Coming Home (crippled vet).

By contrast, the only major Hollywood release this year that has a "political premise" is the Jonathan Demme remake of Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel Washington replacing Frank Sinatra, read into that what you will!) But although movie buffs are buzzing about the film's brainwashed Gulf War vet (with parallels to the recent killing spree of Gulf War vet John Allen Mohammed), the film has a wishy-washy "Manchuria Corporation" in charge of the brainwashing. Unless there are direct parallels to Halliburton (which the trailer did not reveal), this film is unlikely to throw any mud towards the Bush White House. Come to think of it, the original classic was no progressive fable -- with cackling Chinese doctors, it fed directly into Cold War paranoia about "scheming Reds" and sleepers.

A more direct and relevant political message was hidden inside two Hollywood blockbusters -- ironically, these were completed before Bush junior took office. These two films were Three Kings (1999) and The Siege (1998). In Three Kings, director David O. Russell offered a stinging rebuke of the first Gulf War, candy-coated by the presence of three major stars (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube). Unlike films like Bulworth which telegraphed their political message loudly (and consequently ran afoul of Rupert Murdoch), Three Kings arrived bearing the innocuous tagline of "adventurers recovering stolen gold." But once the action-loving audience had been ensnared, Russell clobbered them with Clooney's speech about Bush I deserting the Kurds after Kuwait's "liberation": "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They don't. Now they're getting slaughtered." Towards the end of the film, an Iraqi officer's torture of Wahlberg also deftly highlighted the double standards regarding American violence against others.

Although Three Kings dissected the Gulf War post-fact, Edward Zwick's The Siege was eerily prescient about post-9/11 hysteria. When reports first came out that Zwick was filming a thriller about Arab terrorists, Muslim groups furiously protested. Whether influenced by these protests, or sticking to his original plan, Zwick eventually emerged with a film that predicted a nightmarish scenario of a rollback of civil rights after terrorist attacks, illegal kidnappings by the US government and CIA blowback. In scenes that now appear prophetic, thousands of Muslim men are rounded up into concentration camps, and entire Arab neighborhoods empty out. In the penultimate confrontation, Denzel Washington's FBI agent confronts Bruce Willis' power-mad general, who is torturing an Arab suspect to death.

General Devereaux (Willis): The time has come for one man to suffer in order to save hundreds of lives.

Agent Hubbard (Washington): One Man? What about two? What about six? How about public executions, huh? ... What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and -- and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they've won. They've already won!

Although Zwick succumbed to the temptation of making the Palestinian character Sami Bouajila the villain, he made him a CIA agent gone bad (with obvious parallels to Bin Laden!), and gave him one of the film's most truthful lines:

CIA Agent Bridger (Sami's CIA handler): They maim, they kill. Do they represent the Palestine you want to build? They are using you!

Sami: You are using me too! Everyone uses the Palestinians!

Finally, nothing can be a better coda to George Tenet's brilliant career than Agent Bridger's rueful exclamation: "We're the CIA, something always goes wrong."

Both Three Kings and The Siege used a splashy, special-effects laden blockbuster to convey a political message. By choosing this vehicle, they may have reached many more people than most serious documentaries could -- or, at least, more of the undecided voters in flyover country. By 2004, the Iraq War, Patriot Act, CAPPS II, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib have provoked a domestic and global crisis. But Hollywood has yet to produce any mainstream films that are critical of the current conflagration. For now, that burden is fully on documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, The Yes Men, and Persons Of Interest. Let's all make sure these films do good business and prove that there is a market for truth-telling -- both unvarnished and flamboyant.

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