National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Woes of a president and a fishing village

'Fahrenheit' hits home; 'Seducing' charms too much


Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is his best documentary to date, as funny as it is angry, a well-aimed shot at the dishonesty behind the invasion of Iraq and the Bush hijacking of post-9/11 patriotism. Moore doesn’t pretend to be nonpartisan and doesn’t aim at philosophical depth but he and his associates have dug up footage that mocks the pieties of the current administration and have edited it for maximum effect.

Even conservatives should be shaken by the film’s exposure of the lies used to justify the war in Iraq, the well-oiled connections between the Bushes and the Saudis (including the bin Laden family), the calculated exploitation of the fear of terrorism among ordinary Americans, and the grim demonstration that war is the occasion for huge financial profits. The 9/11 attack is captured with brilliant restraint as the screen goes black and the terrified cries of victims and onlookers reach our ears, followed by an endless, gray cloud of shredded paper. Using film shot by frontline photographers that shows the gruesome reality of Iraq at war, Moore offers acid comment by placing it next to a clip of Donald Rumsfeld’s smug chauvinism.

“Fahrenheit’s” Bush is not seen as sinister; he’s just a wind-up doll. The president speaks earnestly to reporters about eliminating terrorism, then confidently asks them to watch his drive from the first tee. Moore is less self-indulgent than in earlier films but after establishing that Congress had not read the Patriot Act before passing it, he drives around Washington in an ice cream truck reading it aloud. Showing Attorney General John Ashcroft (who actually has a good voice) happily singing a patriotic song of his own composition gets an even bigger laugh. When Moore accompanies a Marine in uniform to the Senate building and asks entering congressmen if they will help enlist their sons and daughters in the military, the camera captures telling shots of their embarrassed attempts to slip away quietly.

Though Moore’s movie won the top award at Cannes last year, it will not teach NCR readers much they don’t already know. Many will prefer a deeper critique of the idea of preemptive war, or may feel that he mixes cheap shots with his exposure of the mendacious linking of Iraq and bin Laden. But shouldn’t we be disturbed to see Bush go on reading a children’s book to an elementary school class for seven minutes after being told that the World Trade Towers had been struck?

“Fahrenheit 9/11” succeeds because it is often hilarious even while conveying a deep sense of the director’s genuine indignation. As a populist, Moore shows how recruiters exploit young people in many near-abandoned cities, luring them into military service because their lives seem to offer no future. This is best dramatized when he returns to his hometown, Flint, Mich., and interviews Lila Lipscomb. She is a mother who originally hated antiwar protesters and has two children who served in the armed forces. Then tragedy struck: Her son, Sgt. Michael Pedersen, was killed in Iraq, and Lila reads his last, heartbreaking letter asking why he was sent to fight in the desert. She carries the question to the White House while Moore’s crew observes her. A woman rushes up to protest that the scene is staged, occasioning Lila’s final outburst, the most powerful moment in the film. A purist can argue that Moore is exploiting a mother’s grief, but here grief is used in a sincere fight against violence.

Even the best documentary has a point of view; the director doesn’t simply turn on the camera and allow reality to unfold. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is an old-fashioned broadside in a venerable American tradition. It’s certainly “slanted” to show images of a bucolic pre-war Baghdad followed by graphic footage of women and children victims of American “precision bombing.” Fortunately, Moore knows how to make his “bias” amusing by connecting his targets with stilted images, cleverly chosen clips from old movies. He doesn’t offer a sustained logical argument for his position, but is hugely successful in making the Bush administration look ridiculous. Everyone should see “Fahrenheit 9/11” and confront the disturbing questions the film raises about this administration’s four years in office.

Seducing Doctor Lewis, a gentle comedy from French Canada, set in a run-down fishing village, Ste.-Marie-la-Mauderne, offers a delightful contrast. This is the kind of movie that gently mocks its old-fashioned characters even as it asks you to root for them carrying out their innocent “plot.”

Fishing can no longer sustain the village economically, and its men are humiliated by having to line up regularly to receive their meager welfare checks. Germain Lesage (Raymond Bouchard), the movie’s grizzled but genial hero, hopes to reverse the situation by promoting Ste.-Marie as the location for a new plastics company. To further his ends, he is even willing to double the population of the village by having the occupants of the café rush en masse to the chapel when the plastics bosses come for an inspection.

One problem remains: The company insists that the village must have a full-time resident doctor, a distinction that seems beyond the range of Ste.-Marie’s possibilities. Through a string of amusing maneuvers, however, Lesage and company lure a young Montreal doctor, Christopher Lewis (David Boutin), to the village, and get its citizens to make his life there as agreeable as possible. The men pretend that they are passionately interested in cricket (rather than their beloved hockey), and one of them even develops a taste for the doctor’s favorite music, jazz-fusion, played at top volume. The movie follows a pattern familiar to fans of those old British comedies that used to be made by the Ealing Studios: When Doctor Lewis goes fishing, for example, he gets a big bite on his line -- from a frozen fish.

The movie shows exemplary restraint in not resolving its plot by pairing off the doctor with an independent village belle, but the actors sometimes spoil things by reminding us how quaint their characters are. A genial comedy like this doesn’t need to have a sharp bite, but it shouldn’t call direct attention to its own charm.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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