Somehow Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" got set down in the public memory as a simple polemic, but it was a better film than that. Although Moore happily threw himself into the back-and-forth of partisan rancor, his film -- a deft mix of documentary and satire, with feints at tragedy -- rose above it. "Fahrenheit 9/11" was funny and sad, and owed a lot to the American tell-me-a-whopper tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. And whatever its failings as high-minded documentary, it was honest in the sense that satirists, with their artistic license to exaggerate and caricature, are allowed to lock 'n' load and blast away at sacred cows, straw men and anything else (including facts) that gets in their way.
"Celsius 41.11," billed as an answer to "Fahrenheit 9/11," isn't funny, though it is sad in a sad sort of way. Political journalists will no doubt feel obliged to balance both films on the dubious scales of journalistic objectivity: It will be said that they are equivalent polemics, one from the right, one from the left, both filled with distortions; all this reflects poorly (tut tut!) on the body politic; but the American public is impatient with cant and will see through both of them.
This sort of review -- which ignores artistic merit altogether -- would be pure nonsense. Moore's film may anger its targets, but he went the extra mile, creatively, to do so. Regardless of its political merits, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is well crafted and it hangs together as a finished product, whether or not you want to call it art. Director Kevin Knoblock's new film is dull, lazy and inconsistent. It begins like Ken Burns at his worst -- talking heads, static images -- and ends like Leni Riefenstahl at her best -- soaring music and unabashed idolatry of the Great Leader (in this case, George W. Bush). This lack of tonal consistency is reflected in a lack of basic clarity on the film's purpose. Is it an overlong attack ad on John Kerry, or an earnest effort at ideological argument with Michael Moore?
Knoblock begins his film -- whose title refers to the feverish temperature at which the brain begins to die -- with an audaciously manipulative montage of imagery calculated to hit all the right buttons with his target audience. A balladeer sings an anti-Kerry song ("Do you believe in anything strongly enough?") as a plane hits the World Trade Center. Then there's a rogues' gallery of terrorists that lumps Saddam Hussein in with the 9/11 hijackers (one plus one equals three, repeat!). Then some dead Kurds, a grisly amputation, Howard Dean doing his famous Iowa scream, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, an Afghan woman's head being blown off in an execution, and some stirring words from President Bush.
This display of virtuosity yields quickly to a soporific series of interviews with the familiar faces of American punditry. Charles Krauthammer gives a saturnine analysis of the misguided, anti-Bush worldview ("in wartime people tend to lose their moorings . . ."); former senator Fred Thompson gives avuncular advice on the necessity of hangin' tough; and radio talk show host Michael Medved barks "War!" like a Chihuahua. Mansoor Ijaz, billed as a "terrorism expert," natters on like that latter-day Clausewitz who always manages to find a seat next to you on the Greyhound long haul from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque.
This is the lazy part of Knoblock's work. Guys in chairs opining is neither good filmmaking nor effective argument. Moore, at least, went out and found new and fascinating footage. He showed us our soldiers in Iraq in a way the news networks won't or can't: tired, angry, confused. He shows them as they describe their favorite background music for killing missions, and he shows some of them suffering pangs of conscience at the cost of war.
Knoblock, whose History Channel credits include "The History of the Gun" and "Plantations," never rises above the History Channel cut-and-paste method. And nothing in Knoblock's film can match the searing presence, in Moore's film, of Lila Lipscomb, who grieves her son's death in Iraq with the physical and emotional anguish of Antigone. Moore's film not only preaches to the choir but also makes a creative effort to stir new emotions; Knoblock's presumes the emotional state of his audience going in -- fear of terrorism, anger at the left -- and limits itself to stoking more of the same.
No tolerable film can be all bad guys all the time -- whether it's George W. Bush and the Saudis, or lily-livered leftists -- and both Moore and Knoblock occasionally soften the focus of their lens, and the edge of their argument. Moore does it with Lipscomb, who is valorized as an authentic hero, giving of her family's blood, yet tenacious in her American right to question authority. Knoblock does it with George W. Bush, seen at the end in a gauzy sequence of heroic images set to the music of Gustav Holst (from "The Planets," not "The Planet" as it's listed in the credits). Set these two passages side by side and ask yourself, who, really, is the heroic figure? Or ask a deeper question: Has the conservative worldview really been reduced to a slavish worship of authority?
"Celsius 41.11" may have some moderate success, because some viewers will feel obliged to go see it as a protest vote against Moore. But there's really nothing more here than you can find watching dreadful political advertisements and dreadful political talk shows. You can get all that on cable television for a low monthly fee. Why pay extra for "Celsius 41.11"?
Celsius 41.11 (72 minutes, at Loews Rio, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue) is rated R for graphically violent news footage and profanity.