WASHINGTON – In D.C., a town where dodging difficult questions and has become a venerated art form, no one seems to have a problem expressing an absolute opinion about “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s scalding attack on President Bush and the war in Iraq.
Passionate views seem to be as evenly divided along partisan lines as votes in the 2000 election.
“Sounds like something Saddam Hussein would like,” remarks Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which played a critical role in evaluating the lead up to 9/11 and how the administration handled it.
“I bet Al Jazeera’s gonna love it,” sneers Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.). Kennedy, a freshmen lawmaker, is the first politician to appear in the “Fahrenheit 9/11” trailer. He’s the Congressman who gives Moore a quizzical look when asked if he would help him recruit other lawmakers to send their sons and daughters to Iraq.
Kennedy complains that Moore ambushed him as he was walking from his offices to the Capitol and didn’t identify himself before he approached him with camera in hand. The awkward moment captured in the trailer, according to Kennedy, was simply a natural reaction to having a camera shoved in his face by an unidentified man. What wasn’t shown, Kennedy says, was his actual answer to the question: a resounding yes he would help because his nephew was already serving in Afghanistan.
But Kennedy’s quote never appears in the trailer or the film. Instead the lawmaker, who is currently running for his first reelection, appears put off by the question.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Kennedy says. “I simply didn’t know who he was and why he was rushing up to me and shoving a camera in my face.” Needless to say, Kennedy is not a Moore fan. Rep. John Tanner, a conservative Democrat from Tennessee, was approached in similar fashion by Moore, who was trying to make the point that very few lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sons or daughters in Iraq, even though Congress overwhelmingly voted to send other people’s sons and daughters there when they gave Bush the authority to wage war.
(On Moore’s Web site, he claims that only one member of Congress has a child who was sent. Actually four lawmakers have children who have served in the war — still a low number, but a discrepancy nonetheless. Moore did not return calls seeking comment.)
Tanner, an eight-term member, is less outraged by his confrontation with Moore than his freshmen colleague across the aisle, although both don’t believe the movie will change many voters’ minds.
“My kids are all grown up, so they couldn’t be sent,” Tanner says he told Moore. “But the reason why we’re sending anyone to war is so that people like Moore have the right to express themselves. I’m more concerned about censorship than I am about the way I’m depicted in the film.”
Neither lawmaker has seen the film yet, although both make unflattering cameo appearances in either the trailer or advertisement. But the ambush interview approach they experienced stands in stark contrast with the way Moore treats lawmakers outspokenly critical of the administration.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), was one of the few on Capitol Hill to vote against the war resolution, and faced a chorus of criticism by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) among others, for lambasting the president on Iraq soil and charging Bush with going to war with Iraq to become “emperor” of America. McDermott and another vocal critic of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 procedure, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), got pleasant, pre-planned sit-down interviews with the Moore folks.
The differing interview tactics don’t seem to bother Eli Pariser, the campaign coordinator for the liberal grassroots group Moveon.org. In the face of GOP criticism and efforts to boycott the movie by GOP consultants out of Sacramento, Moveon.org has rushed to Moore’s defense, urging its 2 million members to see the movie during its opening weekend and planning rallies in several election battleground states in support of the film.
“The most important parts of the movie are the parts that are least able to be nit-picked,” Pariser says, referring to a scene about where a mother describes what it’s like to lose her son in Iraq. “The stories that are most important in the movie are the ones you can’t fact-check away.”
Pariser seems certain Fahrenheit 9/11 will be the first film to change voters minds and have a real impact on an election.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) isn’t so sure. Biden’s reluctant to talk about the film because he hasn’t seen it, and he believes most voters have already made up their minds about the elections. But, after six terms in the Senate and one failed run for president, Biden doubts any movie will have a serious impact on voter behavior.
“The ‘Right Stuff’ came out just as (former Sen.) John Glenn (D-Ohio) was running for president,” Biden recalls. “And it didn’t make a dent” in boosting his bid for president in 1984.
So far, the Republican National Committee has steered clear of any direct commentary about the film and its impact, feeling quite comfortable to let Move America Forward, a right-wing group run by Sacramento GOP consultants, do their arguing for them. Still, when pressed, the RNC claims they’re not sweating the film’s release.
“It’s a movie,” RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson comments. “If people are looking for an objective view, they’re not going to find it in (Moore’s) movies. I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s votes. People who are going to go have already made up their minds.”
But the Bush folks may be underestimating the political power of Hollywood to change public perception.
Paul Reickoff, a first lieutenant in the Army reserves, spent more than a year leading troops on the ground in Baghdad, and he’s eager see what emotions Moore’s film churns up in average citizens who haven’t experienced the real-life ravages of war first-hand. Reickoff is busy forming a group for soldiers willing to speak to the media about their feelings regarding the war, and he’s concerned that right-wing groups will try to boycott the film and clamp down on open debate about the war and the administration’s handling of it.
“Controversial films are important because they invoke thought,” he says. “This is not a video game and people are not chess pieces. If some Senator felt ambushed by Michael Moore than poor him. I felt ambushed in Iraq all the time. If he doesn’t know who Michael Moore is, he better find out.”