MIDWAY THROUGH BARBARA KOPPLE and Cecilia Peck’s new documentary, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, we witness a showdown of sorts. Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines is watching video footage of George W. Bush being interviewed by a television news reporter, about Maines’s notorious statement to a London concert audience that she was ashamed of the fact that the president hails from Texas. Bush offers up a plainspoken analysis of the controversy. “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind,” he tells the interviewer. “But they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records.” Maines, however, fails to see his logic. “What a dumb f—,” she loudly pronounces. And then, in the unlikely event that Bush himself is watching, she looks into the camera and repeats the epithet directly to him: “You’re a dumb f—.”
Nothing like a little subtlety to win over those undecided midterm election voters. When Shut Up and Sing premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Maines’s tantrum was greeted with applause; Canadian film festival attendees are nothing if not unabashed lefties. The reaction from more-moderate-minded viewers, however, is likely to be different. Shut Up and Sing (which opened nationwide October 27) is an often compelling study of modern crisis management, as handlers and publicists frantically try to restore the band’s shattered image. But it also reveals Maines to be petulant and childish, a woman who refuses to fully take responsibility for her actions. The film’s few glimpses of Bush, meanwhile, show us someone who is calm and authoritative; simply by refusing to lower himself into the sandbox for a tussle, he ends up winning the debate.
It’s this very pattern that we’ve seen play out in any number of recent documentaries and features, including 2004’s Bush’s Brain (about Karl Rove’s masterminding of Bush’s career), 2006’s American Dreamz (featuring Dennis Quaid as a clueless Dubya stand-in), and Death of a President, another Toronto film festival entry, in which British filmmaker Gabriel Range stages a mock Bush assassination. Not since Richard Nixon has a world leader inspired so many artists to direct so much fury at him. But unlike Nixon, Bush has managed to emerge mostly unscathed, if not enhanced, by these vitriolic portrayals of him.
So why haven’t artists been able to score points against the man (especially considering the fact that even Bush’s champions now readily acknowledge that there are plenty of points to be scored)? To answer that question, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering the granddaddy of all anti-Bush screeds, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Viewed simply as a work of political activism, Fahrenheit is funny, moving, and relentlessly argued. The problem is that Moore didn’t necessarily allow moviegoers to see the movie on its own terms. Instead, he opted to create a full-blown media circus. For months before (and after) the film’s opening, in June 2004, he beat the same mocking drum on talk shows and at stump speeches. (Like the Dixie Chicks, he also cried that his free speech rights were being stomped upon when Disney said it wouldn’t allow its subsidiary Miramax to release the film—despite the fact that Moore had long known that Miramax wouldn’t be releasing the film.) Eventually, even those viewers inclined to agree with the filmmaker became inured to his larger message; nobody likes a bully. By contrast, George W. Bush—who barely seemed to know who Michael Moore was and who spent most of 2004 repeating variations on the phrase “You don’t have to agree with me, but you always know where I stand”—came off looking like the classiest guy on the planet.
In many respects, Fahrenheit 9/11 seems to have poisoned the well for political films in general; moviegoers can’t get past the idea that such works are simply preaching to the liberal choir. But there’s also been a much larger failing on the part of the Bush bashers: They simply refuse to give the president his due, as a politician who knows how to stay a singular ideological course and as a man who can connect brilliantly with ordinary people. Instead, in movies like American Dreamz, he’s portrayed as the semiliterate marionette of Dick Cheney. And in documentaries like this year’s Al Franken: God Spoke, about the liberal radio host’s attempt to launch Air America, the president’s supporters are constantly belittled as easily duped idiots. In the latter film, which takes place in 2004, the condescension turns so palpable that, by the time Election Day rolls around, even those of us who voted for Kerry are happy to watch Franken get his comeuppance.
Over the next 24 months, Bush will no doubt be suffering many more cinematic slings and arrows. But until artists learn to speak with a measure of calm and humility, their efforts will be pointless. Consider Death of a President, which Newmarket Films just released in October. The first half of the film is a gripping nightmare come to life, as Range shows us how an assassination might be pulled off in modern-day Chicago. But the second half of the film, in which a Muslim man is wrongly convicted for the crime, turns into an all too familiar harangue against the Bush administration’s handling of civil-liberties