Media Matters

Team Ebert’s Political Police

Critics who love Michael Moore can’t stand it when he and his ilk are targeted.

By 10.19.04

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ANAHEIM -- Who knew that movie press junkets were such a threat to one's mental health?

The pained, disingenuous reaction of many of the nation's leading film critics to last week's release of the lunatic puppet satire, Team America: World Police, is further confirmation that the junkets appear to have helped spread in viral fashion the mentality of left-wing Hollywood blowhards from la-la land to critic land.

One result: Sean Penn and Roger Ebert now appear to be swapping material. For one of the many examples he's given us in recent years, Ebert might as well have been channeling Penn when he likened the 19th-century Bill the Butcher mob-boss character in 2002's Gangs of New York to 2000 Florida election official Katherine Harris. Both, you see, were about one thing -- seizing power.

Janeane Garofalo couldn't have done a better job of being simultaneously smug, glib, and inane.

A little background is in order before we get to the critical reception for Team America."

Given that even devout conservatives like George Will and Richard Lugar question the administration's Iraq record, it's understandable that a pundit in any field, even a film critic, might find occasion to take on President Bush. But as is made clear in a brief perusal of www.rottentomatoes.com -- the wonderful online compendium of film reviews -- we're not seeing a thoughtful, reasoned uneasiness about America's post-9/11 maneuverings in articles about movies that attempt to comment on our times. Instead, it's often just a shallow recitation of conspiratorial blather and moralistic preening. This, of course, was most apparent in the collective critical orgasm over Fahrenheit: 9/11.

Those with long memories will recall that it was Pauline Kael -- Ebert's predecessor as America's most powerful film critic -- who first showed Michael Moore to be a charlatan with her dissection of the fact-fudging in 1989's Roger and Me.

Kael, alas, died in 2001, and stopped writing reviews well before that. Two other influential critics with reputations for integrity are also out of the picture. John Simon now focuses solely on theater, and Gene Siskel -- Ebert's unsentimental, tough-minded partner on their popular TV show -- died in 1999.

SO WHAT HAPPENED THIS spring when Moore came along with a pseudo-documentary that built from the astonishing libel that our 41st and 43rd presidents took a $1.4 billion bribe from the Saudi royal family? That depicted Saddam's Iraq as a benign, tolerant Shangri-La? That changed the date and context of a newspaper clipping and presented it as fact?

No one in critic land gave a damn.

Ebert called Moore "one of the most valuable figures on the political landscape," and, incredibly, praised him for being "cautious" in marshaling his evidence.

Ebert's current TV-show partner, Richard Roeper, trumpeted the movie's "revelations" and called it "hard to refute."

David Edelstein of Slate described Moore as irresponsible, but then said so what, Bush had it coming: The film "is, all in all, a legitimate abuse of power."

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle raved about Moore's emergence as a "political thinker" and his depiction of the nightmare that America became "from the moment that the networks took Florida out of the Gore column on election night 2000."

Now, four months after Fahrenheit: 9/11 broke box-office records for "documentaries," this shrill partisanship is again on display -- but in reaction to a movie that lambastes the Bush administration.

It's the bizarre, perverse, relentlessly offensive Team America, the marionette-starring action-film parody from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

It is, of course, defensible for a critic to dislike a movie that is gleeful in its use of foul language and ethnic and sexist stereotypes, that gushes past the Monty Python and Exorcist records for on-screen vomiting, and that breaks appalling new ground in depicting sexual acrobatics involving disturbingly life-like puppets.

But that's not what has Ebert and Co. in a snit.

I SAW IT THE FILM last week. I thought its first half was a brutal satire of an America whose self-satisfied, self-centered foreign policy led it to blithely destroy other countries in the name of saving them. My take on the second half -- in which Parker and Stone depict naïve, nitwit Hollywood lefties teaming with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il for a "peace summit" meant to hide his evil schemes -- was that it was a brutal satire of those who reflexively see America as the prime villain in international affairs. Many critics, including those who write for Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Associated Press, saw the same themes as I did. Most liked Team as much as I did.

So what did Ebert say about Team in his mostly scathing review? "I wasn't offended by the movie's content so much as by its nihilism." In other words, since it didn't conform to his politics, it's nihilistic.

What did Edelstein say in his often-scathing review? The subhead captures his view perfectly: "The puppets of 'Team America' skewer the right. If only they'd stopped there." Skewering the left? We can't have that!

What did LaSalle say in his entirely scathing review? "There's nothing honestly observed" in the whole movie, which "misrepresents" Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. It's not "honest," you see, to take stands that aren't in sync with San Francisco and Manhattan.

Could LaSalle make it any plainer that he identifies with Baldwin, Penn and Robbins, and admires them for their fevered hatred of George Bush's America?

For that matter, could any of these three make it plainer that the only political satire they want made is satire that reflects a smug contempt for the right?

Next summer, according to a recent announcement in Daily Variety, Moore will be back with his next film -- Sicko, a "documentary" about the problems of the American health-care system sure to offer such bombshells as the fact that the H in HMO stands for Halliburton and that Pfizer is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican National Committee.

One can already imagine Roeper's logorrhea in celebrating Sicko's "revelations," LaSalle's tribute to Moore's continued growth as a "political thinker," Ebert's admiration for the "cautious" way Moore proves that the average American would live to 130 if it weren't for corporate greed, etc.

It's hard to conceive of the fact that Ebert was once routinely compared to Pauline Kael for his lucid prose style and his championing of obscure films and lowbrow "guilty pleasures."

No more. The pundit he often resembles nowadays is another P.K.: Paul Krugman.

Two thumbs down -- way, way, waaaaay down -- on that sad development. One Krugman is plenty.

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About the Author

Chris Reed is an editorial writer for the U-T San Diego newspaper, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune.