AS I WRITE, NEWS HEADLINES REPORT THAT ANOTHER United States helicopter has been shot down in Iraq. Though the military issues statements claiming that scores of militiamen loyal to fundamentalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are killed daily, the insurgency rages on unabated. The handover of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government took place ahead of schedule at the end of June, but American troops remain in country under fire and with no departure date in sight. The weapons of mass destruction, which constituted our urgency for starting a war for the first time in our national history and without our historic allies, have still not been found. Osama Bin Laden remains at large and his Taliban protectors continue to rule the Afghanistan countryside.
Meanwhile, back at home, amid reports of an Al Qaeda plot to attack on American soil before our fall national elections, our terror-alert code is once again raised to the second-highest level, all the while an unelected President George W. Bush assures us that we are safer for our military action in the Middle East.
We would seem to live in perilous times, physically perilous perhaps, politically perilous almost certainly. Partisanship has never been so virulent. A republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives attempts to force President Clinton from office for sexual indiscretion. But however objectionable Clinton's private behavior, not even a Republican-majority U.S. Senate can find the votes to convict him of the Constitutionally required "high crimes and misdemeanors."
And in the nasty aftermath of the Clinton impeachment, George W Bush comes to the White House having lost the popular election for president by over half a million votes and having "won" the Electoral College vote only by carrying the state of Florida where his brother is governor, where there are widespread voting irregularities, and where a state-wide recount months after the election shows that Bush lost there too.
Is it any wonder that one might worry about the health of our representative democracy? Should we be concerned when Florida Governor Jeb Bush blocks an attempt to provide a verifiable paper back-up for the new touch-screen voting machines his state is installing to replace the punch-card system that had us debating pregnant and hanging chads four years ago? I don't belong to the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Bushes stole the presidential election in 2000, but I know that George W. Bush did not win that election, and I am among the very concerned that he seems unabashed about pursuing a wide range of policies that were rejected, however narrowly, by the American electorate. That's why I am worried when this morning's USA Today details a TV ad being run that profiles a collection of Viet Nam veterans who decry Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's distinguished war record "a lie." This ad is run despite the fact that President Bush sought the safety of Air National Guard service during Viet Nam and has never publicly accounted for why, in an era when it has long been rumored that he was an abuser of alcohol and illegal drugs, he refused to take a physical in 1972, and lost his flying privileges as a result. More important, the ad is run despite the fact that none of the anti-Kerry vets served with and under him and despite the fact that all of the men who did serve with Kerry and under his command testify to his leadership and his valor. Senator John McCain, whose Viet Nam war record was similarly attacked by the Bush primary campaign in 2000 has denounced the ad as dishonest and indecent. But as of this writing it has not been withdrawn. How dirty do campaign tactics have to get before they are too dirty? And who gets to decide?
These are questions and concerns variously addressed by two different American films in the campaign summer of 2004. Michael Moore's non-fiction Fahrenheit 9/11 is a withering and unabashed attack on the personal, political, and administrative record of the sitting president. Defensibly non-partisan, Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate is a political metaphor wrapped inside a conventional thriller. Both come to the same conclusion, however, that international corporate interests wield far too much influence on American electoral politics. And both have infuriated Republican leaders and their defenders in the media.
I MIGHT TERM MOORE'S FILM A DOCUMENTARY, BUT HE makes no pretense of the balance associated with that genre. His mind is made up about George W Bush and his administration, and this film is an illustration of why. Fahrenheit 9/11 begins with the 2000 presidential election and includes scathing footage of a chief executive at leisure. In his first eight months in office, Bush spent forty-two percent of his time on vacation, including all of August, 2001. Like much of this film because it is so partisan, the opening is somewhat unfair. Bill Clinton was so obsessed with his public image that he conducted polls before selecting his vacation spots. If Bush is more cavalier about how the public might gauge his work ethic, he is completely justified in his declarations that presidents (like other executives) are still working even when they are away from their conventional offices. Bush may have been excessive in his leisure, but only in degree, not as Moore implies, in kind.
Fahrenheit 9/11 grows more serious as it approaches the tragic events of September 11,2001, and here Moore exercises a restraint that is wise and not entirely characteristic. He shows no footage of planes slamming into the World Trade Center towers, no horrible scenes of doomed office workers choosing to plunge a thousand feet to their deaths rather than surrender to the inferno in their workspaces. Instead, Moore shows only the faces of the stricken, the desperate prayers of survivors for a miracle not forthcoming. From these searing moments that will bring tears to the eyes of right-wing Christian fundamentalists and left-wing atheists alike, Moore moves directly to indictment: George W Bush and his administrative team were asleep at the wheel. Outgoing President Clinton repeatedly tried to warn Bush personally about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda's threat, but the incoming president wasn't interested. The CIA famously warned in its August 6,2001, memo that Bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States, but Condoleezza Rice shows up to insist that this memo fails to provide the warning it obviously does provide. The FBI warns of Middle-Eastern aliens training at U.S. flight schools. But no one pays attention. Former head of Bush's counter-terrorism unit Richard Clarke appears to testify that immediately after 9/11 both the president and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered him to figure out a way to blame Iraq. Once again, some of this finger pointing is unfair and much of it is unconvincing. Moore would have it that the Bush administration was lazy and unconcerned. The case is stronger that it was confused and looking in the wrong direction. Moreover, we should not forget Bin Laden lieutenant Ayman Al Zawahiri's hate-filled proclamation before 9/11 that Al Qaeda would use America's open society against it. In short, though I am loath to offer George W. Bush's presidential performance much defense, it seems plain to me that 9/11 would have happened had Al Gore sat in the White House that day, and that Bush opponents like Moore err in suggesting otherwise.
More convincing and, consequently, more worrisome is the evidence Moore presents that the Bush administration tried to prevent the formation of the a 9/11 commission and thereafter failed to cooperate with those examining what mistakes were made before and after that day. Here the Bush administration concerned itself more with issues of political advantage than with the good of the country. Yet more troubling is the Bush family's long involvement with the Saudi royal family and their historic attendants, the Bin Ladens. Even Moore makes no suggestion that the Bushes were somehow traitorously complicit in 9/11. But he does present powerful evidence of a longtime conflict of interest that may have spread into the Oval Office during both the administrations of George H. W. Bush and that of his son. Moore shows that the current Bush administration tried to hide the president's connection to James Bath, an American who has administered investments for the Bin Ladens throughout the last three decades and who, presumably with the owners' knowledge, repeatedly put money into the checkered career of the current president during all that time. Bin Laden money bankrolled George W. Bush's failed oil companies. Bin Laden money influenced the younger Bush's appointment without appropriate credentials (other than family connections) to the oversight boards of Harken Oil and the Carlyle Group, postings that paid him handsome stipends at times he desperately needed financial support. This long-time connection between the Bushes and Saudi royals and the Bin Ladens almost certainly accounts for why several dozen individuals in the latter two groups were allowed to leave the U.S. on September 13, 2001, after enduring only cursory questioning by authorities beginning to investigate the 9/11 attacks. Typically, Moore overplays his hand, unfairly implying that the Saudis and Bin Ladens were allowed to fly when all other flights were grounded. And he doesn't bother to acknowledge that no evidence has emerged to implicate anyone allowed to depart in the attacks. Still, such privileged treatment is more than a little unseemly and has evidently produced few positive consequences in reciprocation. The Bushes are so close to the Saudi ambassador that they call him Bandar Bush, but the Saudi government refused to allow American agents to question families of the fifteen 9/11 hijackers who were Saudi nationals. Why? And why didn't the Bush administration make this lack of cooperation a huge international scandal?
Because moore's agenda is so nakedly political, Fahrenheit 9/11 eschews cohesion in either content or tone. The filmmaker offers much to stimulate and digest, but the movie is glued together only by its anger and its target. To a considerable degree, Moore is heir to the Abbie Hoffman—Jerry Rubin Yippie movement of the late 1960s. His object is as much to ridicule as it is to instruct for the purpose of change. Thus, we get a parody of the old Bonanza TV series with the faces of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the horsemen of the Cartwright family. Elsewhere Moore generates comedy out of marine recruiters trying to sell the benefit of armed service to a series of grungy teens at a working-class mall. The film also details government infiltration of a Fresno, California, peace group obviously more likely to die in cookie consumption than in a suicide bombing. And, of course, Moore engages once more in the guerilla confrontation shtick he first adopted in Roger and Me. He notes that of the more than 500 members of the U.S. Congress, only one had a child in Iraq; then he stands outside the Capitol and tries to enlist Representatives and Senators to recruit their children for service in Gulf War II. Just as he knows they will and delights in capturing them doing it, the Congress people scurry away from him like roaches under the light.
Oddly, given that in Bowling for Columbine Moore ultimately blames a sensationalistic media for American's problem with firearm homicides, here the filmmaker drops the hammer too lightly on those who bring us, and therefore determine for us, what is the news. He doesn't wonder why the Florida recount proving Gore the winner was front-page news nowhere in the country. Nor does he rail in any focused way about why the American media have abided by the Bush administration prohibition on covering the stories of our soldiers who have died and suffered life-altering battle injuries in Iraq. Moore includes footage of Iraqi civilians who have lost innocent loved ones to American bombs, but he makes no more effort than the mainstream media to try to address the human cost of Gulf War II on the very people we are ostensibly freeing from oppression. Does anyone know how many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of this war? What role have civilian casualties played in fueling the insurgency? The fierce opposition of the enraged gunmen in Faluja and Najaf would seem to indicate that our presence in Iraq is more inflammatory than our leaders anticipated and than our media have endeavored to communicate or understand.
But omissions are inevitable in any work of this kind. There is only so much that can be included in a feature-length film. Moore does document the incredible blunder of our attacking Iraq with only 120,000 troops. Yes, we could defeat Saddam's army with a force of that size, but we needed three times that many soldiers in the field to secure the country properly. And now matters have atrophied to the point it may be too late to accomplish a lasting peace no matter how many troops we commit. At the beginning of the second Bush administration, Colin Powell advised against making war on Iraq because of its divergent ethnic and religious populations. "You break it; you own it," Powell is said to have warned the president. And now we appear to own something we ourselves have broken that all the president's tanks, and all the president's men, cannot put back together again.
Moore includes early footage of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison. He also outs the Bush administration's proposed rollbacks on salary and benefits for those who are serving and have served their nation under fire. Here the director is fair and very effective, pointing out how the all-volunteer army that replaced the draft at the end of the Viet Nam war is overwhelmingly manned by the children of the working and impoverished classes. Moore observes with enduring poignancy that such children of limited opportunity step forward to serve their country with pride and ask only that they not be sent into harm's way for no good reason. That, more than perhaps anything else, is why Michael Moore and those who agree with him about the current war in Iraq find it appalling that President Bush appears so unchastened by the absence of weapons of mass destruction—his stated reason for asking our young people to risk their futures.
To this end, Moore introduces Lila Lipscomb, a self-described "conservative Democrat" who states her dislike of anti-war protesters and her pride in sending two children into the armed services. Mrs. Lipscomb stands for a cross-section of American in any number of ways. And she is understandably devastated when her son, Sgt. Michael Pedersen, is slain in the Iraqi desert without, by testimony of his own letters home, ever understanding why he's there. His stepfather asks the question that so many of us have asked for a year and a half: "What for?"
Moore suggests the answer to this question is all the money American companies like Dick Cheney's Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, on whose board George H.W Bush now sits, will make off rebuilding Iraq and exploiting its huge oil reserves. Mysteriously, Moore doesn't supply the footage, but he might have reminded us that the first President Bush originally stated that the reason for Gulf War I was "oil." Nonetheless, and though I'm sure Michael Moore would call me naive, I remain unconvinced that the current President Bush is quite so nakedly the servant of international corporate greed. I think his sin is that of a vast cultural ignorance and indifference married to a perilous arrogance borne of his being commander-in-chief of the world's only superpower. He and the senior members of his administration have failed to see the world for the intricately complicated place it is. And they may yet pay a severe price for thinking they can exert their will at random in far-flung places and on people they have not bothered to understand.
The manchurian candidate takes up the issues of illegitimate presidency and insidious corporate influence in a vastly different way. Jonathan Demme's film has enough in common with John Frankenheimer's 1962 film of the same name that the current picture could hardly pretend to be something other than a remake. Both movies are about a squad of American soldiers who are captured by enemy forces, brainwashed, and sent home believing something happened that didn't. In both cases a sergeant is awarded a Medal of Honor he doesn't deserve and turned into a pawn in a race to capture the United States presidency. And in both movies the squad commander begins to be haunted by dreams of the truth and thrashes about blindly trying to prevent what he can neither see nor understand. Despite such extensive similarities, Demme's film stands on its own as worth seeing even by those thoroughly familiar with the original. The plot plays out with key differences, and the ending is entirely different.
Based on the Richard Condon novel and scripted by George Axelrod, the original was set during and after the Korean War. The enemy was international communism. The Chinese did the brainwashing; the Russians planned to control the U.S. president. Lawrence Harvey played war hero Sgt. Raymond Shaw. Frank Sinatra was squad commander Captain Bennet Marco. Janet Leigh was his quirky love interest Eugenie Rose Chancy. Shaw's conniving (and incestuous) mother (Angela Lansbury) was a sleeper-cell communist married to a weak-willed, stupid, alcoholic U.S. Senator (James Gregory) she wanted to see become president.
Re-imagined and updated by writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, Demme's version is set during and after Gulf War I. Liev Schreiber is the false hero Shaw. Denzel Washington is Marco. And Meryl Streep is Shaw's widowed mother Eleanor, now a U.S. Senator in her own right. This time Mom wants to capture the presidency for her son, not her husband. Kimberly Elise plays Eugenie Rose, a character developed here with greater clarity than in the original.
The title now refers not to Asian communists but to Manchurian Global (read Enron/Halliburton/Carlyle), an international conglomerate into oil, medical technology, surveillance, and military mercenaries. Manchurian actually wants to rule the world; they're just starting with the United States. Frankenheimer's film attacked McCarthyism as well as communism. Demme's slams ruthless international corporate corruption and American politicians who serve as their facilitators.
The current Manchurian Candidate has its flaws. Perhaps responding to criticism of the original that human beings can't be hypnotized into doing the things Raymond and Marco do, Demme and his team seem to suggest that Marco's squad members are controlled by electronic brain implants. But that doesn't account for the nightmares of truth all the men suffer. And no explanation is ever provided for the tattooed face of the spectral Muslim woman that appears in all their sweaty visions. Nor does the film explain the function of implants apparently buried under the skin on the back of the men's shoulders or why, after some years, Marco's implant suddenly swells up. The scene in which Marco attacks Raymond and bites the implant out of Raymond's shoulder is matched in its wild improbability only by Raymond's passive reaction.
Nonetheless, this picture delivers sly parody of our political habits and obsessions and genuine chills about the dangers that face us. When the founders of our republic came to draft the constitution whose brilliant flexibility has allowed us to enjoy more than two centuries of freedoms unparalleled in human history, they created a system of checks and balances by dividing power among an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch of government. In the first amendment to that constitution, they in effect provided a fourth guarantor for our collective rights when they protected the freedom of the press. But what the framers of the constitution could not have foreseen was the rise of global conglomerates whose corporate interests and power transcend the boundaries of any one nation. Such companies possess fundamentally unlimited wealth. Their money permeates our political campaigns. They own our media. Are we still free? For how long?
Some Republicans have declared The Manchurian Candidate more partisan than Fahrenheit 9/11. And I certainly take note that Eleanor speaks of herself as being a "red," as in a senator from a red or Republican state (nice irony since the original Eleanor was a "red" as in a communist) and that Raymond campaigns on the slogan "Compassionate Vigilance," which inarguably sounds like George W Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism" motto. But the film never once employs party names and, if anything, while Raymond advances toward a vice-presidential nomination, he sounds more like a Democrat than a Republican. Moreover, Democrats won't like how much Eleanor's look and mannerisms will remind them of Hillary Clinton. In short, if Republicans feel specifically attacked by this film they need look no further than that telling passage in Fahrenheit 9/11 where George W. Bush addresses an audience he terms "the haves and the have-mores" and tells them, "Some people call you 'the elite,' but I call you 'my base.'"
Demme and Moore worry that American democracy is yielding to an oligarchy we don't properly fear, to an elite that will serve the common good only when it coincides with corporate profits. What if they are right? And what if even the politicians who do their bidding don't grasp that in the pursuit of electoral victory they've stepped out on a slippery slope with no easy way back to the summit of principle?
Fredrick Barton is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. His fourth novel, A House Divided, won the William Faulkner Prize in fiction. His award-winning first novel, The El Cholo Feeling Passes, is now available in a new trade paperback edition.