Amadeus Kaelber thinks Michael Moore is "like God with a weight problem." The 17-year-old Shelburne resident was part of an overflow crowd at the Roxy in Burlington for the initial early-afternoon matinee of Fahrenheit 9/11, which opened last weekend at packed houses nationwide. The controversial documentary about the Bush administration and its preemptive invasion of Iraq is the number-one movie in the country, despite being booked at fewer theaters than most new fiction films.
"What I love about Moore is, he looks like such a loser," suggests Kaelber's mother, Ellen Arapakos. "But he's the ultimate inspiration."
People in the local audience were so inspired, it seems, they booed the preview for an animated Christmas release that promises sappy sentimentality, and groaned at a commercial for the equally sugary Pepsi. The Fahrenheit prologue drew cheers, however, for its footage of protestors pelting George W. Bush's limo with eggs at his January 2001 inauguration. And applause greeted a shot of Senator Jim Jeffords in a scene that obliquely recalls how he reshuffled the Congressional balance of power by quitting the Republican Party.
The 116-minute production, which earned the top prize at Cannes last month, is a provocative and dizzying expose of recent historical events. It's also an unapologetically opinionated denunciation of the President, along with his cronies in government and big business. A lot of them happen to be oil-rich members of the Saudi royal family, which has maintained very close ties to generations of Bushes.
Moore builds a circumstantial case: George W. Bush was on vacation for 42 percent of his first eight months in office, for example, and continued reading to Florida schoolchildren for seven minutes after learning that hijacked planes had hit the World Trade Center. He's also shown making goofy faces moments before his 2003 televised announcement that the bombing of Baghdad was about to begin.
A bit more persuasive is the point that shortly after the September 11 attacks, 142 Saudi citizens -- including a bunch of bin Ladens -- were permitted to leave the country following merely perfunctory interviews. This information is recounted to the strains of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," one of many clever pop-culture references sprinkled throughout the film. Not so funny is the footnote that hundreds of other foreigners, most from the Middle East, were held incommunicado in American jails for months.
Moore revisits Flint, the economically devastated Michigan hometown he immortalized in 1989's Roger & Me. A woman named Lila Lipscomb explains that her children joined the military for the opportunities unavailable to them in a city with a 17 percent unemployment rate. Marine recruiters stalk the least-affluent areas there in an aggressive campaign to sign up teens, particularly teens of color, whose horizons may be limited in civilian life.
By contrast -- in Washington, D.C. -- a young man in uniform says he will not go back to the Persian Gulf "to kill other poor people." Once again practicing his trademark on-camera ambush journalism, Moore tries to persuade lawmakers who presumably voted for the war to enlist their own offspring in the armed forces. Not surprisingly, he has no luck.
Lipscomb's patriotic pride about a son serving in Iraq turns to despair when he's killed in the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter. She reads his last letter home, which expresses hope that Americans "do not re-elect that fool."
By the time Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World" is heard on the soundtrack, the playfulness and outrage of Fahrenheit have been matched by genuine sorrow. Moore's heart is clearly breaking as he rakes the muck.
In the shadow of the anti-Bush blockbuster, another topical doc is making the rounds these days. Burlington filmmaker Deb Ellis reports that You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the cinematic profile of progressive historian-author Howard Zinn that she co-directed with Denis Mueller, just won an award at the Provincetown Interna-tional Film Festival. On June 25, it began a theatrical run at Boston's Coolidge Corner Screening Room and will reach New York City in late July.
Like Fahrenheit, this picture boasts some great music, including a relevant song by Pearl Jam. Ellis remembers that when Zinn got two skateboards emblazoned with his image from lead singer Eddie Vedder, the octogenarian re-gifted them to her son Kiah, now 14. With such hip treasures in tow, the kid can keep on rockin' -- and kickflipping -- in the free world.