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Bully Pulpit Films: A Divisive Trend, No Doubt

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N01

Does it say something about the state of contemporary cinema that, for this critic, 2004 will be best remembered as the year she finally learned how to spell "Fahrenheit"?

That's overstating things. The past year had its high points -- "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Story of the Weeping Camel" and "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" leap to mind. (I still haven't caught up with many of the year's most notable releases, among them "Sideways," "House of Flying Daggers" and "The Aviator.")

Still, I can't help looking back on the year as one that proved -- just in case I needed reminding -- how irrelevant a film critic can be. For me, 2004 functionally started in February with the mega-hyped release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and ended just a couple of weeks ago, with "Weapons of Mass Deception," a critique of the U.S. media's reporting of the Iraq war.

Those two tent-poles aptly sum up a year in film that in retrospect has become a blur of movies whose artistic aims and achievements weren't nearly as interesting, to their makers or their audiences, as the political and theological opinions they advanced. To dare to discuss those films as art -- to try to deconstruct their narrative methods, evaluate their production values, place them in some sort of historical and philosophical context -- was inevitably to invite accusations of being on the "other side" of whatever cause they were proselytizing.

The two most notorious examples, of course, were "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Each had its strong points, which I enumerated in my mixed reviews. "The Passion" featured an affecting, almost entirely silent performance by James Caviezel as Jesus during his last hours, and its depiction of Mary witnessing her son's suffering and death gave that cosmic sacrifice a powerful emotional grounding. "Fahrenheit" was yet another incendiary, often funny, provocation from Moore, who brought to light some hitherto unseen aspects of the Iraq war, especially the thousands of wounded soldiers whom the administration had rarely allowed to be seen, as well the conflict's disproportionate cost to poor and working-class Americans.

I took issue with both movies as well. I found many of Gibson's aesthetic choices -- the pounding musical score, the overuse of slow-motion shots, the luridly graphic torture scenes -- overheated and gratuitous, and his blend of literalism and speculation problematic. As usual, Moore's tendency to go for the ad hominem attack (making fun of Bush's clueless-looking facial expressions) and his own self-righteousness got in the way of what could have been a more cogent, substantive argument.

But on a more subtle level, both "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" reflected something more troubling and difficult to name, a particular kind of bullying, coercive sensibility that sought to colonize their viewers' political and moral imaginations, rather than open them up. (Gibson and Moore shared a gift for media ballyhoo, as well. Both films were hugely "controversial," thanks mostly to the strenuous efforts of the filmmakers to portray themselves as victims -- in Gibson's case of accusations of anti-Semitism and in Moore's of the Disney company, which decided not to distribute his film.) As movies that played most successfully to viewers who already shared their vision of The Truth, "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit" did little to invite nuanced or critical thinking in the audience. As many arguments as each film sparked, they didn't open up debate as much as shut it down, reducing the conversation to Manichaean my-way-or-you're-a-traitor/heathen/pencil-necked-geek food fight that has come to pass for public discourse in this country.

It took the re-releases of two classic movies to point up the weaknesses of "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit." "Monty Python's Life of Brian," the 1979 satire in which the eponymous British comedy troupe deftly skewered religious hypocrisy while managing to convey deeply humanist -- one might even say Christian -- values, was the perfect antidote to "The Passion's" ponderous, punishing theology. And "The Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 neo-realist masterpiece in which the complexities and painful contradictions of the Algerian revolution were given urgent, complicated life, made Moore's simplistic portrayal of prewar Iraq look like sophomoric daydreams.

Once the pieties and paranoia of their respective hype campaigns had cleared, "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit" turned out to be yet two more examples of what has become the distressingly closed circuit of American culture, wherein consumers increasingly tune in only to those media outlets that confirm their existing biases and assumptions. Suddenly, buying tickets to a movie -- like reading a book by Al Franken or Bill O'Reilly, listening to Air America or Rush Limbaugh, watching Fox News or PBS -- became a political statement.

As it happened, "The Passion" turned out to be a bona fide cultural phenomenon, breaking box office records around the world. And "Fahrenheit" was a phenomenon in its own right, leading a pack of political documentaries that opened (and closed) throughout the the last seven months: "The Hunting of the President," "The Corporation," "Orwell Rolls in His Grave," "Bush's Brain," "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," "Brothers in Arms," "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry."

With painfully few exceptions, each was nothing more than an anti-Bush partisan pamphlet, shot on muddy-looking videotape and featuring the same talking heads, sound bites and news clips, edited to fan the flames of maximum indignation.

Usually when beginning to write a movie review, I ask myself three questions I'm told were originally posed by Goethe: What is the artist trying to achieve? Did he or she achieve it? Was it worth achieving?

Put to the service of analyzing what amounted to a devotional and evangelical tool on the one hand, and a piece of partisan polemic on the other, those questions suddenly seemed utterly beside the point, or at least beyond my expertise. Moviegoers didn't need me, they needed their family pastor -- or, as the summer wore on, maybe David Broder.

One film, however, managed to qualify as art. "Control Room," by Jehane Noujaim, opened a few weeks before "Fahrenheit," without nearly as much fanfare. Although it's been seen by only a third as many people, "Control Room" is by far the better film, mostly because Noujaim, who in 2001 co-directed the documentary "Startup.com," sheds light where Moore turns up the heat, and lets in a little more of the air that he tends to suck out of a room. An absorbing portrait of the Arab news channel al-Jazeera, "Control Room" follows several of the satellite station's staff members as they prepare for and finally cover the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, all the while trying to dance on the knife-edge between journalistic independence and their own nationalist feelings. Noujaim also captures their American counterparts, who exhibit none of the self-criticism or self-consciousness of their Arab colleagues, and who are seen swallowing the U.S. military's "stories of the day" with surprising credulity.

Noujaim addresses these and other thorny contradictions simply by observing them, cinema verite-style, without narration. Although the filmmaker deploys a sure authorial hand in the editing, she allows viewers to grapple on their own with such slippery notions as objectivity, bias, perception and reality. Rather than reinforce the assumptions of its presumptive audience, "Control Room" questions them, just as the film's main characters -- journalists and military officials alike -- are seen questioning their own motives and aspirations.

(Ironically, it was another low-budget, cinema verite documentary, Jonathan Karsh's "My Flesh and Blood," that managed to go deeper into the nature of superhuman compassion, grace and sacrifice than "The Passion." A portrait of a year in the life of Susan Tom and her 11 adopted kids, most afflicted with severe disabilities or painful, even fatal diseases, "My Flesh and Blood" lived up to the sacramental meaning of its title, as this family proved again and again the meaning of unconditional love -- and the difficult work of surrendering to that love -- under the most excruciating circumstances. One would hope that the faith of "The Passion" fans would have been just as deepened by watching a mother care for a son whose skin was literally falling off as they were by Gibson's fake flayings.)

It's "Control Room's" porousness that I predict will ultimately make it a more durable film than "Fahrenheit," just as Noujaim's willingness to embrace ambiguity made her a more mature artist than most of her political-doc peers. With luck, filmmakers who were inspired by last year's crop of cinematic sermons will heed Noujaim's example of having a strong point of view and trusting the audience to come to its own conclusions.

It's nice finally to be able to spell "Fahrenheit." But my wish for 2005 is that I'll get back to reviewing movies.

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