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Distorted Documentaries: Politicization Hurts the Movies

Fahrenheit 9/11

Documentaries are supposed to “document” facts, but that’s hard to tell by watching some recent films. Liberal activists such as Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald have turned the American documentary into the worst political propaganda.

Politicized documentaries are nothing new. In the 1930s, the Worker’s Film and Photo League made films to popularize socialist causes. During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration ordered up films to trumpet the political causes of the New Deal. In the 1950s and 1960s, documentary filmmakers adopted techniques from avant garde schools like Cinéma Vérité (on location shooting, nonprofessional actors, minimalist scripts, and hand-held cameras). The appearance of “raw” filmmaking made their documentaries seem more like they were “documenting” real life. The Vietnam War inspired a dramatic expansion of interest in politicized documentaries.

All that said, the current spate of politicized documentary films is in a league of its own. The worst of the worst was Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Hollywood even handed him an Oscar. Others have followed Moore’s lead. Greenwald has produced a series of films denouncing, among others, the conservative media (“Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”), corporations (“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”), and defense contractors (“Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers”).

“At the D.C. premiere [of ‘Iraq for Sale’],” relates one report, “[Greenwald] made it clear that the film’s agenda is to affect the 2006 election. In a Q&A following the film, Greenwald and Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, talked about producing the film in time for the election.” Greenwald worked with anti-war groups such as MoveOn.org to speed sales and distribution. “There’s no objectivity in this film,” Walter Addiego writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, “Greenwald’s goal is not to offer balanced coverage but to roil the waters.”

Greenwald has made the politicized documentary a potent force. There are dangers here. Documentaries live in a shadowland. Unlike traditional Hollywood fare, they can claim they offer real facts because they deal with real subjects. But, these filmmakers are not bound by any rules or ethics. They do not have to adhere to the standards of journalism followed by reporters — and they don’t.

Someone has to fight back. Playing politics is one thing, but playing politics with issues of national security such as war, peace and missile defense is another. Heritage has made a commitment to tell the other side of the story — a principled, non-partisan assessment of issues of national import in a documentary format.

It’s little surprise that we decided to make a full-length, broadcast quality, high-definition film about missile defense. Heritage sponsored the High Frontier report that first inspired President Ronald Reagan to propose the Strategic Defense Initiative. More recently, Heritage played a key role advocating the abrogation of the Ballistic Missile Treaty, which allowed the government to test and deploy a system capable of stopping a ballistic missile fired from North Korea at the United States. Heritage analyst Baker Spring is one of the highest-regard researchers on this issue and his colleague Peter Brookes is a nationally recognized security expert have been working on this issue for years.

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