Saturday, February 24, 2007


Two that made it, one that should have

By Edward Copeland
This week, I caught up with three documentaries, two of which are in the running for the Oscar for documentary feature tomorrow night and the other which should be. The one left out of the party is the great Why We Fight, a probing look not so much at the war in Iraq as in the whole business of military in this country based on Eisenhower's famous farewell speech in 1961 when he warned against the dangers of the "military industrial complex." The two that did get invited (including the probable winner) are Jesus Camp and An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth

In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Al Gore an archenemy of mine dating back to the 1980s when he let Tipper and her PMRC (co-founded by James Baker's wife) hold those ridiculous Senate hearings about "dirty lyrics" in rock music.

Sure, he may have tried to change his image (going so far as to show up at the Grammys to give the award for rock song to the Red Hot Chili Peppers), but become an enemy of free expression once, and you're on my shitlist forever. He sealed it when he picked Censorin' Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, though at least most good Democrats have caught up to me in hating the Republican in formerly Democratic clothing. Sure, my politics are left of center, but it is possible to despise both Gore and Dubya.

That said, I resisted watching An Inconvenient Truth for a long time. I knew its nomination was inevitable, so I bit the bullet and went ahead and watched it. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our times and the documentary lays out a lot of important facts about it but it still plays, as I think it was Stephen Colbert who said it, the first major film release of a PowerPoint presentation.

Remember how even Gore's supporters criticized his tendency to lecture and sound as if he's talking down to the audience? Imagine an hour and a half of that and you get the gist of An Inconvenient Truth.

What's even more frustrating about the film and its important topic is that too often it plays as if it's really about Gore and not the planet's future. We get a little rehash of the 2000 election, which he actually sounds more depressed about than when he's discussing his sister's death from lung cancer or the accident that almost claimed his young son's life.

For all his running away from Clinton in 2000 because of the Lewinsky scandal, it's ironic that he's now participated in a documentary that gives him a bigger blow job than Bill ever got.

Jesus Camp

I sort of knew what to expect going into Jesus Camp, but I hadn't rushed to see it (mainly because of high rental demand) but also because I was almost certain that it would give me nightmares — and I was correct on that count.

Except for some scenes of a radio talk show host who is openly critical of some evangelicals' interpretation of Christianity (such as denying global warming, claiming it's not for political reasons but simply because they think Jesus will be back at any moment, so why worry about the icecaps?), the camera just watches its subjects and doesn't comment.

Thankfully, there is a brief moment of comic relief when disgraced pastor Ted Haggard appears and jokingly points at the camera saying he knows what they did last night and if they pay him money, he won't tell their wife. Those closeted gay evangelicals sure have an ironic sense of humor.

The focus of the documentary though is on an indoctrination camp for kids where the founder, Becky Fischer, acknowledges that she basically wants to build an army of Christians the way that Muslim extremists breed suicide bombers. (As one little girl says, they are like "warriors, only funner.") Fischer worries about this "sick world" we live in praying for everything from abortion to making sure Satan doesn't give them technical difficulties during their presentation to the children.

She mentions how most Christians aren't willing to fast for what they believe in the way Muslims do during Ramadan, but taking a gander at Fischer, this doesn't look like a woman who has spent a lot of time skipping meals. Granted, I'm not a religious person, but the scenes of what these true believers try to instill in children truly is frightening.

They warn against the evil influence of Harry Potter, because it's about witchcraft. That always puzzled me but after seeing the film, their reasoning is more apparent. They are discouraging the use of imagination because imagination leads to free thought and embracing fantasy might give some of these kids the notion that perhaps religion is a fantasy as well.

What's most disturbing is when they haul out a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and encourage the kids to literally lay hands on him. I may be a little rusty on the Ten Commandments, but I could have sworn one of them forbids worshipping false idols, but I guess in the eyes of these zealots, Dubya isn't false, he's the Messiah.

Fischer also breaks another commandment when she appears on the radio show with the host and denies that she instills politics into the children, when we've already seen evidence that proves otherwise.

Why We Fight

"God help us if someone ever sits in this chair who doesn't know the military like I do," one of President Eisenhower's children report their father as having said while he occupied the Oval Office.

His words are even more chilling today when you see what a mess was made by the spoiled son of a wealthy politician who "served" in the Air National Guard protecting the southern U.S. from the Viet Cong and a vice president who had "other priorities" and got six deferments to avoid putting on a military uniform during Vietnam.

Of course, now both of them and many other chicken hawks are more than willing to send other people's children off to die in their poorly planned, misguided mission in Iraq. Why We Fight isn't exclusively about Iraq though. It provides a vivid history lesson about the United States' history of military adventurism after World War II.

The most touching moments of the documentary belong to a New York police officer whose son died in the World Trade Center and went to great lengths to have the military put his son's name on a bomb dropped on Iraq only to feel completely betrayed once Dubya finally admitted that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

It also paints some details on the picture of Darth Cheney's involvement with Halliburton before and after he joined the company. (You even see one employee of the KBR unit of Halliburton bragging at a convention that his company is in "collusion" with the military.) When war becomes this big a business, you have to keep it going.

Eisenhower's prescience falls on deaf ears now as Congress ignores its constitutional duties. There's also an interesting moment when they interview former maverick John McCain who says that there should be a public investigation of Cheney's links to Halliburton's contracts and their defrauding of the U.S. during the Iraq war.

I wonder what McCain would say today if someone raised that issue.

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praying for everything from abortion to making sure Satan doesn't give them technical difficulties during their presentation to the children.

As a computer programmer and trainer, I am ALWAYS praying that Satan doesn't give me technical difficulties. :) So I'm down with that. Everything else about Jesus Camp made me want to vomit, and I consider myself a Christian (note, I said "I" consider myself--a lot of Christians would not. I'll be playing footsie with them in Hell; they just don't know it yet). I was raised Baptist, which is why a lot of what I saw rang a bell.

The George W. Bush thing was not unexpected. He tells us God told him to do shit, which means he and I must not be talkin' to the same God. People that do that make it difficult for believers to argue against them. "Well, God told him to do he must be right." Baloney. I suppose because I can think for myself, and keep my spirituality between me and my Maker, I'm a naughty Christian. I like being naughty...

I was offended and disturbed by the film, but I still gave it a good review. I don't have to agree with the doc's subject to acknowledge it is well done.

And it's odd that you care about the environment but disliked Gore's movie, but I could care less about it and enjoyed Mr. Gore's PowerPoint. Maybe it's the computer guy in me. Mmmm...Powerpoint.
My probably with An Inconvenient Truth is that while it sells itself as a movie about the environment (and puts enough in there to make the case), it really plays more as an infomercial for poor Al Gore. Jesus Camp is scary. I agree.
I have one niggling point about why the Jesus Campers were warned against Harry Potter. Obviously, "witchcraft" alone doesn't explain it, and neither does the fact that it's fantasy--there's a shot in the one male kid's house that prominently features a copy of Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. Some fantasy is ok, as long as it toes the line of being good versus evil, and written by very Christian people such as Tolkien.

I think the reason why Christian parents are so wary of HP is the subversiveness inherent within the story. Most of the plot revolves around how a group of kids have to figure things out for themselves because the adults around them are untrustworthy, won't tell them the entire truth, and even go so far as to obfuscate the truth from those who need to know it most. I can see how that would scare the bejeesus out of any hardcore Christian parent.
I love Why We Fight. I wish it was (or could be?) nominated.
It didn't make their short list and I'm not positive about its eligibility, but according to IMDb it opened theatrically in 2006 and the Broadcast Film Critics and the Writers Guild both nominated it for their documentary awards, so I don't see why it wouldn't have been eligible for the Oscar.
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