The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

February 04, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Yes, I expect some hate mail from this...

Orignally, I was going to write something about James Frey and his fact-or-fiction "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. However, not having read the book, I realized I didn't have much of intelligence to add to the conversation. In order to write about the subject, I would have to read the book, and I don't have a burning desire to do so (regardless of how much of it really happened). But there is one related subject I can pontificate about: does truth matter?

In news, unlike politics (the subject matter of much news), it apparently does. Witness what happened to journalists Stephen Glass (The New Republic) and Jason Blair (The New York Times) when their fabrications were uncovered. Granted, there was no public outcry, but they lost their jobs. And the repercussions were far-ranging when CBS News aired uncorroborated and perhaps untrue stories about President Bush's National Guard record. In the end, that debacle cost anchor Dan Rather his job. Rather did not knowingly lie, but he improperly and ineffectually fact-checked the story because he wanted it to be true. In effect, that amounts to the same thing.

That brings us to the movies. On one side, there are the documentaries: fact-based explorations of one subject or another. On the other side, there's everything else (a category dominated by, but not exclusive to, narrative features). It's easy to explain the exaggerations, omissions, and additions of "based on true story" fictional films - their primary reponsibility is not to history or the truth, but to the entertainment and/or enrichment of their audience. As I have often said, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. And that's fine as long as it's understood that what we're viewing is a fictionalized interpretation of real events.

Documentaries, on the other hand, must be truthful and fact-based. That doesn't mean they cannot have an opinion or point-of-view, but they cannot lie or distort the facts to promote that perspective. Like news pieces or articles, documentaries need to be rigorously fact-checked to ensure that they are not knowingly or unknowingly providing false or misleading information. And that brings us to Michael Moore.

Moore is guilty in the cinematic realm of being as untruthful as Frey is in the literary realm. In all of his films, but most especially Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore wilfully and knowingly violates the tenets of documentaries, distorting the facts and employing staged events. This wouldn't be a problem if Moore's works were presented as propaganda or op-ed pieces, but they are universally accepted as documentaries. (Bowling for Columbine won an Oscar in the documentary category.)

Moore is a skilfull and persuasive propagandist. Watching Fahrenheit 9/11, it's easy to assume we're being given factual information. It takes research above and beyond the movie to uncover the tricks and omissions employed by Moore to bend events to reflect the reality he wants them to show. Dan Rather's reputation was shredded because he reported something he believed to be true. Moore, on the other hand, puts things on screen he knows to be untrue. Which is worse?

I would like to hear Moore's opinion of Frey's transgression, because they share the same sin. The difference appears to be one of power. Moore, despite his pretense of being a "little man," wields a tremendous amount of clout. The same cannot be said of Frey. His deer-in-the-headlights appearance on Oprah's show exposed him as ineffecutal and inarticulate. So one is castigated on national television while the other continues to operate freely. This proves a point we have known for a long time: only lie if you have the voice to drown out those who try to point out the truth. Few people are louder than Moore.

I would never discourage anyone to discount Moore's films outright. Indeed, I highly recommended Bowling for Columbine (despite the Charlton Heston bushwhack). Moore makes good points and challenges people to think. But he doesn't play fair, and those who view the movies need to watch them with a healthy degree of skepticism. Even back in the time of Roger and Me, Moore was not a documentarian. Many of the events depicted on screen in that picture were either staged or re-created. From the beginning, he has been in the business of propaganda. That's the thing to remember when you put one of his movies in the DVD player or sit down to a future theatrical screening of Sicko.