If talk radio and Fox TV are the preferred media of the right, film has emerged this year as the left's not-so-secret weapon. There's never been an election in which political documentaries played a significant role--until now.
Michael Moore's incendiary "Fahrenheit 9/11" packed movie houses, but most of these new documentaries are meant for home viewing; theatrical distribution is just the icing on the cake. The major movie companies won't touch these films: Disney famously refused to release "Fahrenheit," and last week Warner Bros. announced it was pulling an antiwar documentary David O. Russell made to accompany the re-release of "Three Kings" both in theaters and on DVD, claiming it was "inappropriate" in a political season. And Sony got cold feet about the DVD of "The Control Room," a documentary on Al-Jazeera that is implicitly unsympathetic to the war in Iraq; Lions Gate will bring it out instead.
In addition to "Fahrenheit" (DVD Oct. 5), this explosion of urgent and angry political films includes Robert Greenwald's one-two punch of "Uncovered" and "Outfoxed" (both on DVD before they appeared in theaters, and which MoveOn.org has been promoting on the Internet), the Karl Rove expose "Bush's Brain" and "The Hunting of the President" (DVD Sept. 28), which documents the campaign to bring down the Clinton presidency. The subtext of all these films--and the explicit argument of the alarmist "Orwell Rolls in His Grave," about the corporate takeover of our media--is that the major news outlets have dropped the ball and don't bring us the real news. How many people, watching "Fahrenheit's" foot-age of protesters pelting Bush's car with eggs on Inauguration Day, wondered why they'd never seen that before?
Few of these documentaries have the rowdy entertainment value that Moore delivers. But his polarizing persona, and his use of fiction-movie techniques, make Moore's screed easy for pro-Bush viewers to dismiss. They may have a harder time refuting Greenwald's "Uncovered," with its impressive lineup of expert opinion--CIA operatives, weapons inspectors, State Department officers, intelligence analysts--marshaled to demolish the administration's rationales for war. One emerges from this unhysterical, cogently argued film convinced that the war has been a costly diversion from the fight against terrorism--and created terrorism where it didn't exist before. Greenwald's "Outfoxed" is an equally convincing demolition of Fox News--though no one's going to be shocked to hear that Fox slants to the right. Greenwald shows us a poll revealing that 67 percent of Fox viewers believed there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam (contrasted with 16 percent of NPR listeners); 35 percent said weapons of mass destruction had been found.
"Bush's Brain" (now in theaters and on DVD) paints a scary, if sloppily constructed, portrait of the mild-mannered Rove as a ruthless, brilliant political strategist who has almost singlehandedly created George W. Bush's political persona, and who'll stop at nothing to see that Bush--and Rove--hold onto power. Though it's filled with juicy examples of Rove's dirty campaign tricks (ask Max Cleland), this broadside would hardly hold up in court. Then again, according to the film, Rove never leaves his fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
We're not done yet. "The Hunting of the President" makes a strong case that there was a right-wing conspiracy (not vast, perhaps, but well funded and well connected) to bring Clinton down by any means possible. And "Hijacking Catastrophe" (in theaters Sept. 10) forcefully argues (much as Moore does) that a neocon cabal has used 9/11 to advance a radical foreign-policy agenda and curtail civil liberties. Is your blood boiling yet? On the left--and the right, as Zell Miller showed last week--anger and outrage will be with us from now to November, and surely well beyond.