When the reviewer becomes the reviewed

July 04, 2004|By Paul Moore

LAST WEEKEND, filmmaker Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 became the first documentary to rank No. 1 at the box office. The movie's unabashed criticism of President Bush's politics and character and his handling of post-9/11 events and of the war in Iraq has become such a promotional and word-of-mouth success that it appears the film will be a hit for weeks to come.

The review by The Sun's chief film critic, Michael Sragow, was less than enthusiastic. The newspaper gave the film two stars in its one- through four-star rating system.

"Too bad this movie doesn't sustain a single tone or argument," Mr. Sragow wrote. "All that unifies Fahrenheit 9/11 is contempt for the Bush administration."

He later noted: "The problem is not merely that Moore preaches to the choir. It's that, at his worst, he's so bumptious and bullheaded that he helps keep that choir small and strident."

Responses began pouring in immediately after the review was published. One reader said: "Moore's film was judged as the best at Cannes. The reviewer is an obvious hack with a right-wing agenda." Roger Fitzgerald said: "Mr. Sragow, your review of the Michael Moore film certainly revealed your pro-Bush bias. What you and the other Bush-lovers at The Sun don't seem to realize is that paper has miserably failed the U.S.A."

And then there's this from reader George Creel of Davidsonville: "If your stomach can stand this [the film], it can stand anything. This smarmy, so-called film critic, under the guise of writing a critique of Moore's film, sneaks all his own anti-Bush BS into the piece. It is probably the most blatant, sneaky abuse of ink that I've seen in a while."

For Mr. Sragow and other film critics, negative reaction to their work and opinions is not unusual, but, Mr. Sragow said, the political nature of Fahrenheit 9/11 made it more intense. "What I always do is judge it as a movie first and foremost," he said in an interview. "Whether it's well told, well argued and well executed. In this case, I do not believe any of those things happened. It should be more or less irrelevant whether I like George W. Bush or not."

Unfortunately, in these days of high-wire polemics, back-and-forth accusations, hysterical denunciations and shoot-from-the hip statements, no one is immune from histrionic reactions. Do liberals feel a long-delayed sense of exhilaration now that Mr. Moore's movie has become so popular? In a front-page news story in The Sun on June 26, a movie patron was quoted as saying, "Michael Moore is the liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, and I'm grateful he's there."

Still, these kinds of responses almost pale in comparison with what Mr. Sragow experienced when he wrote a negative review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ this past spring. The reaction was, in Mr. Sragow's words, "vociferous, vitriolic and very aggressive. The most positive thing is that some readers at least prayed for my soul."

In the simplest terms, if you don't like The Passion of the Christ you are anti-Christian, and if you don't like Fahrenheit 9/11 you are pro-Bush. It seems, however, that not everyone read to the end of Mr. Sragow's review. His summation finds fault with Mr. Moore because, in Mr. Sragow's view, the filmmaker becomes just like the man he is skewering: "tone-deaf, sputtering, incapable of framing an intelligent debate."

One positive aspect of controversial movies such as The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 is that they help frame a kind of national debate on issues and values. It is likely they will be the most discussed and remembered films of 2004.

The public, of course, can ignore the opinion of a critic. "Movie reviewers have to call them like they see them, but the irrelevance of Michael Sragow's biased opinions to the Baltimore community is proved each time a packed house at the Charles empties out into the street," reader Carl Ehrhardt said.

A critic must judge a work based on consistent standards and must explain whether the work meets those expectations. And Mr. Sragow does not always get the volume of antagonistic responses to his reviews. He did not like Shrek 2 very much and he was not chastised for being anti-kid or anti-American.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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