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Politics Gets Punk'd

How Michael Moore jump-started the documentary with the tricks of reality TV.

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Is Michael Moore the new Mark Burnett? He’s certainly come a long way since Roger & Me, a comparatively traditional documentary featuring extended, shaky shots of the filmmaker slouching around GM’s headquarters. In contrast, Fahrenheit 9/11 treats us to a head-spinning range of unexpectedly whimsical tactics, from mocking voice-overs to sardonic music to in-your-face satirical elements like the Bush administration’s faces grafted onto the title shots from Bonanza—not to mention “the Coalition of the Willing” portrayed in a mock travelogue, Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” played over clips of President Bush as a young man, and the words he’s lying posted at the bottom of a news interview with a Republican congressman.

All of which is immediately recognizable to any viewer of reality TV, with its steady flow of clever edits, off-kilter soundtracks, and snide subtitles. From Pop-Up Video to Punk’d, reality-television producers like Jon Murray, the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, Mike Darnell, and Survivor’s Mark Burnett have created a whole new vocabulary, one capable of transforming hours of raw footage into a coherent story that’s simple and fun enough to keep the audience’s attention. On Blind Date, mocking graphics undercut hot-tub seductions; on High School Reunion, subtitles identify the geek and the class clown; when Nick and Jessica fight on Newlyweds, the awkwardness is lifted by some flirty little tune that tells you everything is just fine and undercuts the conflict. Seeing newlyweds bicker or Ozzy Osbourne stumble around in a haze would be nearly intolerable, in fact, without these artful music choices.

Similarly armed with an unpredictable soundtrack, Moore takes viewers on a perilous ride, careening between the subversively glib strains of “Shiny Happy People” and an Apocalypse Now–style pairing of horrific footage with thrashing rock and roll. Choosing wildly prejudicial shots (like the ones of Bush getting his hair done) is a staple of reality TV—it’s immediately apparent which “characters” the producers want to skewer for the audience’s pleasure.

Of course, Bush might seem villainous even without scripting. (And as any reality refugee has learned, there’s no percentage in complaining about the editing.) The overall question of whether documentaries “should” be objective is probably beside the point: They’ve always been deeply subjective behind the veil of journalistic objectivity. But with the increasing emphasis on postproduction in everything from reality TV to music videos to Hollywood blockbusters, it follows that documentary filmmakers would adopt some of the industry’s methods, fine-tuning their ability to influence audiences without even having to state their views directly.

Does Fahrenheit 9/11 purposely mislead with its perverse blend of facts and fantastical elements, sly music, farce, and merciless footage? As Moore himself has pointed out, no more than Fox News intentionally misled its audience about the realities of war when it provided a triumphant soundtrack for the bombing of Baghdad. Moore’s film may be a manipulated narrative, but it’s comparatively up-front about its own tricks.

What is perhaps more important is that under Moore’s tutelage, the documentary form itself seems to be evolving into something much more emotional and dynamic: less fusty, less NPR—a nimble hybrid of narrative and fact, of vaudevillian pyrotechnics and op-ed argumentation. Tumultuous times tend to produce their own bratty theatrical geniuses, from P. T. Barnum to Abbie Hoffman. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this has become an age in which even a president can get, like The Apprentice’s Omarosa before him, his fifteen minutes of shame.


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