by Felix Gillette
On a Friday night in early September, a jumbo portrait of Ronald Reagan flashed onto the screen at a suburban movie theater on the outskirts of Dallas. As the audience filed in to take their seats, President Reagan stared down at them, accompanied by a quote from his 1989 farewell address. “[F]or those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer in style,” warned the former star of Bedtime for Bonzo.
President Reagan’s appearance in lieu of the annoying Fandango guy marked the opening night of the American Film Renaissance, the country’s first conservative film festival. Sitting in the audience and staring at the giant image of the former president was a group of filmmakers, DVD-distributors, and Young Republican types who were hoping to someday wrestle control of the indie film business from Robert Redford and the Sundance kids.
President Reagan may be the founding father of the G.O.P. film movement, but today’s conservative filmmakers look to someone else for daily inspiration. His name is Michael Moore. Of approximately 20 selections at the festival, two were made explicitly in response to Moore—Michael & Me and Michael Moore Hates America. Several other films had implicit anti-Moorian allusions and scenes. Michael Medved, author of Hollywood vs. America, set the tone for the festival by crediting Michael Moore for galvanizing conservative film goers. Indeed, Jim Hubbard, a Dallas-based lawyer who, along with his wife Ellen, organized the weekend, says that the festival wouldn’t exist if not for Moore. Two years earlier on a fateful night in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Hubbards went to their favorite art house theater and found two unsatisfactory choices: Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Frida, a feature film about the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Appalled by the glaring liberal bias of the Hollywood-industrial complex, the Hubbards decided to organize a grass-roots conservative film movement.
First up on the program was DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, a feature film produced by Showtime and staring Timothy Bottoms as President George W. Bush. The movie, which borrows heavily from Bob Woodward’s favorable portrait of the President in Bush at War, dramatizes the inner workings of the Bush Administration during the nine days immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bottoms plays a straight-shooting, tough-talking president who gives orders to Donald Rumsfeld, tells Dick Cheney the time of day, and lectures Tony Blair on diplomacy. Throughout the film, he does more decisive hand-chopping than Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. Sample scene:
—Mr. President, what will you do to protect the homeland?
—Whatever (CHOP) it (CHOP) takes (CHOP).
At the heart of DC 9/11 is a not-so-subtle rebuttal of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In Moore’s latest film, the camera lingers on the face of President Bush after he is informed of the terrorist attacks. For seven long minutes, the President remains in a state of semi-paralysis as he sits in an elementary classroom in Florida. DC 9/11 revisits this scene. As flashbulbs blink like strobe lights, Bottoms as Bush sits in a state of shock. In the next sequence, however, director Lionel Chetwynd shows the audience what Moore supposedly omits. The President snaps into action, making telephone calls, assessing intelligence, and barking out orders like Norman Schwarzkopf on a caffeine bender. After the screening, the crowd applauded, and Bottoms signed autographs.
Aside from DC 9/11, most of the Renaissance films were documentaries. One focused on the liberal media’s treatment of Cuban Americans during the Elian Gonzalez controversy. Another revealed how gun control had contributed to (a) the genocide in Rwanda, (b) the lynching of blacks in the American South, and (c) the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. Silent Victory, a long-winded military love fest, celebrated the dedication of American troops in Vietnam. At one point, the directors argued that the Tet Offensive was actually a victory for the United States and attributed its historical misrepresentation to the lousy reporting of a slipshod journalist—a certain Walter Cronkite. The movie implored Americans to honor all who served in the military. Afterwards, during a Q-and-A session, one audience member asked Don Hall, the film’s executive producer, what he thought about Senator John Kerry’s service in Vietnam. “Four months to receive that much metal?” responded Hall. “It’s preposterous. I think he’s a charlatan, a fake.”
Meanwhile, in the lobby, representatives of a conservative radio station handed out “Beat Kerry” paddles attached to a ball on a string. A would-be producer tried to sell his pilot for a conservative reality-TV show in which, among other gags, he goes around placing outsized “government warning labels” on—get this!—government buildings. Nearby, a volunteer handed out information about the documentary with the best name at the festival: Beyond the Passion of the Christ.
Over the course of the weekend, there were a smattering of Kerry jokes, lots of hissing anytime Bill or Hillary Clinton appeared on screen, and plenty of misgivings about the Hollywood Axis of Evil—also known as Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, and Janeane Garofalo. But most of the venom was directed at Moore.
On Saturday night, conservative commentator Larry Elder presented Michael & Me, a rambling rebuttal to Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. The film, which focuses on the societal benefits of gun ownership, fails to deliver much screen time with Moore. Elder manages a single ambush interview that lasts for the better part of a minute. To make up for his lack of face-to-face time with Moore, Elder employs an animated fantasy sequence to grill a cartoon version of his nemesis. Bloated, scruffy, and sporting an anti-NRA baseball cap, the cartoon Moore wilts under Elder’s rapid-fire questions. The cartoon Moore turns green, vomits, and shrinks to half his size. Finally he pulls out a handgun and starts firing at Elder. A security guard swoops in and carries Moore away while he squeals helplessly, “Shame on you Mr. Bush; shame on you.”
Felix Gillette is busy pondering the big question: Ronald Reagan or Fandango Guy?