L. Neil Smith's
Number 309, March 6, 2005

"Free Walt Anderson"

The Passion vs. Fahrenheit 9/11
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

Only two movies had a real impact on American culture last year. One was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The other was Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Both defined whole sets of election-year social values (the former a right-wing favorite, the latter a film for the left). Yet neither was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

So what's up with that?

Well, let's take a look.

Up first is The Passion. Now, obviously, this movie's got a lot going for it—for example, God. You tend to do well when God's on your side. Good cinematography doesn't hurt, either—and The Passion had plenty of that, too. What a surreal motion picture. I swear I felt like I was there. I could practically taste the blood of Christ; I could feel his pain and smell his remorse. That's why I'm not buying this "gratuitous violence" stuff. Was it gratuitous? Yeah. But don't blame Gibson; blame the Romans. What do you think crucifixion was—fun?

The Passion also features some very fine acting. Officially, it stars James Caviezel as Jesus. But you quickly forget James Caviezel is there. (Unfortunately, the Academy forgot he was there, too. How could he not win Best Actor? It blows my mind.)

But for all its merits, is The Passion really Best Picture material? I'm not so sure. It's certainly far from perfect. In fact, it lacks context. That's why critics got away with calling it gratuitous. If you knew the story going in—great. But if you didn't, you were left to wonder: "Why's everyone beating up that poor Jewish guy?" That's the thing that keeps this from being a true Best Picture contender. It tackles the who, what, where, when, and how of Christ's execution. It could've done a better job tackling the why. As a result, it's easy to justify an Oscar to the choir. But to the unbelievers? Maybe not so much.

Fahrenheit 9/11 faces similar challenges. By the time this movie hit theaters last summer, its message didn't really matter anymore. It could've been an anti-Bush message, or an anti-gravity message, or even an anti-films-with-a-message message. Everyone knew Michael Moore was hell-bent on derailing George Bush's reelection. At that point, the final product was secondary—people had already judged it.

Not that Fahrenheit veers off course. It doesn't. And its footage is undeniable. Dead kids piled in the back of a truck. Wounded soldiers paying an arm and a leg to prove that freedom isn't free. If you ever wondered what war looks like, see this movie. It'll make you wonder how much you really want to know.

But Moore also uses his footage to play gotcha politics. He doesn't suggest that war is a racket; he suggests that Bush's war is a racket, and acts like the Bush White House is the only one ever to screw something up. That's ridiculous. An anti-war message will never sink in with pro-war people when all you are is John Kerry's mouthpiece.

In the end, and perhaps for this reason, Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to live up to its stated social purpose. Conservative Red State Republicans beat liberal Blue State Democrats on Election Day. Bush won. And as pundits would have it, The Passion was voted Best Picture in the process. To that end, Fahrenheit isn't Best Picture material, either. How can you reward a movie that falls short of the one thing it sets out to do?

Still, there's a problem with this analysis. It's fine, in and of itself, but it fails to explain why the two most important movies of the year weren't nominated for the Oscar. So what's the deal?

Perhaps Hollywood is having one of its more risk-averse moments. Both movies come with a lot of baggage. It's a no-win situation for the Academy. If The Passion beats Fahrenheit, it wouldn't be true to Hollywood's leanings. (This was clear during Chris Rock's opening monologue, when the mention of Moore received cheers and the mention of Gibson received a clap and a couple of coughs.) But on the flipside, if you thought the entertainment industry had its hands full after Janet Jackson breastfed 90 million Americans last year, imagine what would happen if Fahrenheit beat The Passion. Conservatives would give birth to whole flocks of canaries. You can't blame Hollywood for wanting to avoid this. It's not cowardice—just good business sense.

(I just wish they would've shown such caution before releasing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.)

But maybe the question here isn't why the Academy snubbed both movies. Maybe the question is: What does it mean? Personally, I'm glad they did it. Why? Because it's like a giant "Ah, bite me" towards the entire Red/Blue dichotomy. Not because this dichotomy is totally baseless, but because pitting The Passion of the Christ against Fahrenheit 9/11 is a thoroughly stupid way to frame it. Think about this. These movies aren't natural rivals. If the Second Coming happened next Friday (Jesus 2: Electric Boogaloo, anyone?), and Jesus were interviewed by Fox News, he would be pro-troops and anti-war. He would gravitate towards the tired and poor no matter the state they lived in—whether in Red State rural areas or Blue State inner cities. And he would finger both parties for being the lying sacks of snakes that they are.

In short, he would scoff at this Passion vs. Fahrenheit notion.

(He might also critique Renee Zellweger's dress. It's hard to tell.)

Look, I don't care if Hollywood wants to be preachy. Really. Who am I to tell them what to do? But if you want to be preachy, at least follow in Gibson and Moore's footsteps. Believe what you're preaching. And believe there's an urgency to it.

In 1994, Steven Seagal turned in the most anti-climactic ending to any movie ever, when, in the final moments of On Deadly Ground, he conducted an anti-Big Oil slideshow in front of a crowd of Eskimos. (Sorry for the spoiler, but if you haven't already seen it—don't.) Seagal wasn't wrong, necessarily. He made some good points. But his speech was so contrived that it nearly ruined movies for me forever. You want to talk about global warming? Zip your lips. There's hot air coming out.

On a larger scale, I think that's the same problem Hollywood ran into before the Iraq war. Actors and singers were very outspoken. And for all we know, they meant every word. But people saw them as preachy for preachiness' sake. This sort of approach rarely wins converts. If anything, it only sinks Red and Blue States further in the mire of their respective flaws.

That's why I'm glad the Academy sat out this fabricated Fahrenheit/Passion battle. Because just when they were expected to pick sides, they decided they didn't want to. Finally, someone decides not to speak out of sheer obligation. This doesn't reverse all that Big Seagal wrought—but it's a start.

Giving Team America the nod for Best Picture would also help.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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