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Michael Moore is rockin' in the free world
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepp's Commentaries
June 27, 2004

Given how famous Michael Moore is these days - or infamous, perhaps - it always amazes me how many people have never heard of "TV Nation." It was an hour-long show that Moore had that ran for a year and a half on NBC, and then, incredibly, for a year on Fox. This was in the heyday of Newt and the "Contract on America" revolution, a time when Democrats and liberals were feeling cowed, and bookstores were reluctant to display Al Franken's "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" for fear of backlash from local conservatives.

TV Nation was putatively an investigative journalism show, but this was Michael Moore undiluted, and the end result was something like 60 Minutes on acid. He was confrontational as all get out, leavened by a truly twisted sense of humor, with the result that he had such phenomena as "Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken," who was a guy in a chicken suit who ran around investigating crimes corporations pulled against the public. One week, they put up a phone number and asked people to call in with crimes for Crackers to investigate, and in the next 24 hours, got over 20,000 calls. Moore sent a black church choir to serenade a gathering of the Aryan Nation. He provided transportation for Bowery locals to a posh public beach in Delaware - a "public beach" for residents only.

He once took an eighteen wheeler, painted it bright red and put huge hammers and sickles on the sides and back, and crammed it with Soviet Union paraphernalia ranging from Red Army uniforms to Mao's Little Red Book, and went on what he called "A Farewell Tour to the [Recently Deceased] Soviet Union." The tour was through the deep south, beginning in Georgia, and they actually made it to Louisiana before the truck was fire bombed. No kidding.

Perhaps his most famous stunt was that of confronting Gingrich, the Newtster himself, in his home district during a campaign rally and asking him to explain why, if he hated big federal government so much, his district was the biggest recipient of Federal funds in the entire country.

If you haven't seen TV Nation, go to michaelmoore.com and see if they have it on videotape or DVD. It's Moore at his peak of aggressive confrontation and daffiness. It's funny as hell even as it makes deadly serious points.

Having been a big fan of Moore's for over ten years, I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Fahrenheit 911, and couldn't wait to see it.

But it turned out I was wrong. Except for two brief sequences, one where Moore drives around the capital in an ice cream truck, using the PA to read portions of the Patriot Act to Congressmen who hadn't read it before voting for it, and in the other, confronting other Congressmen to ask why their kids weren't fighting in Iraq, the in-your-face clownishness was completely absent.

What emerged was far more thoughtful and remarkable. Moore has very little face time in his movie, focusing on his subjects (including a series of devastating interviews with the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq), images (Putsch trying on various "presidential" expressions as he prepped for his address to the nation on the eve of the attack on Iraq) and powerful montages from the 2000 election fiasco, 9/11 (including an incredible sequence in which he shows the reactions of people to the attack on the towers, but not the towers themselves), and of course, Iraq. It is the graphic nature of those images that probably earned the movie its R rating.

The fact that Moore pulls back, and provides a voiceover but lets the cameras do the real talking, is what makes the film so powerful, so extraordinary.

The right wing used to dismiss Moore as an annoying gadfly, a clown who did outlandish stunts like challenging CEOs of Detroit's Big Three to come out and perform an oil change on one of their products (the head of GM actually did so).

The Moore behind this movie is far more serious, far more intent on getting it right, and a far greater threat to the right wingers of the GOP. Even before I saw the movie, the reaction I was hearing from people who had already seen it left me thinking that this was a work that could transform America, the way the works of Patrick Henry, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Upton Sinclair did.

Having now seen the movie, that surmise has turned into a sense of certainty.

It's not unusual to hear an audience laugh during a movie, but it's unusual to hear them applaud in an age when most Americans are used to being jaded and passive receivers of corporate entertainment. The movie got applause several times during the showing, and an ovation at the end.

We nearly didn't get to see the movie. We left early, my wife and I and our friend Lewis, and got into Ashland, some 80 miles away, a full hour and a half before screen time. I had checked the movie theater's website (www.catheatres.com, which my brain keeps insisting is "cat heaters dot com") this morning, and was advised that tickets were limited, and on a first-come first-serve basis, advance sales at the box office only and in cash.

We live in one of the most thinly-populated parts of America, and in 12 years, we've never encountered a sold-out movie house. When you live in a place that has less than ten people per square mile, big crowds are rare. We arrived to find a line already forming, and a sign on the box office (along with a disclaimer that the movie theater was committed to showing movies no matter what their political views, which I found strange) that all showings for the day were sold out. Only four people were in front of us in line at that point, so Lewis insisted we stick around. When the place opened up, Lew explained to the ticket guy (who was also the manager) that he knew there was always a "buffer" of some unsold seats held back in case the company president and his wife showed up or whatever, and could we have a crack at those seats at showtime? I made a point of grousing to my wife that we had driven 80 miles to see the movie, and if they had known yesterday that all shows were sold out, why didn't they put that up on their website and save us the trip? I made sure I was standing near the manager when I said this, and was careful to keep my tone reasonable and non-hostile.

There were seven buffer seats left, and we were numbers five, six, and seven, respectively. We got lucky.

When we left, there were TWO big lines: those who had tickets for the next showing in one direction, and a second, even bigger line in the opposite direction of people looking to buy advance tickets.

Nobody in these parts has ever seen anything like that.

In three days, Moore's film has already set the all time box office record for a documentary, made a profit, and is averaging an extraordinary $9,000 a screen (the next best this year was Shrek II, which averaged about $4,200 a screen on opening weekend).

Nobody in Hollywood has ever seen anything like that.

Go see this movie. Even if you don't like Michael Moore, or aren't a liberal, go see this movie.

You won't be able to dismiss it as just propaganda or a political hit piece, and you WILL have much to think about.

And in a very small way, you might be a part of a big moment in American history.

Posted: June 28, 2004


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