This preciously-titled attempt to refute Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”–supposedly “the temperature at which the brain begins to burn”–is probably the worst example of the activist documentary to appear this election season. That’s not because of the very conservative, pro-Bush position it takes; the picture is no more one-sided that Moore’s was, and each partisan has a perfect right to express his point of view as energetically as he likes. The problem is one of presentation. Unlike Moore’s films, and even Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed,” this one is totally lacking is any sense of humor; it’s more a grim slice of ultra-conservative agitprop. Secondly, the witnesses it brings forward are, for the most part, so closely aligned with the far right (and fulsomely identified) that you might think you were watching a Fox “news” special; even Greenwald’s “Uncovered” at least appeared more sober and balanced, even if it really wasn’t. Finally–and most reprehensibly–it resorts to the cheapest of rhetorical devices by smarmily claiming upfront that it has no intention of slamming one person or another–John Kerry in particular–but then devoting the last twenty minutes to doing so in the grossest, most vitriolic fashion. The false piety is pretty grotesque, and after watching the gruesome cinematic lynching you might be moved to return to “Going Upriver” merely to cleanse your palate.
The other fundamental problem with “Celsius 41.11” has to do with the mode in which many of the witnesses offer their so-called evidence. It’s worrisome to hear so many of them offering mere assertions rather than proof on many contested points, introducing with phrases like “Everybody knows that…” or “There’s no doubt that…” matters that are far from as self-evident as they claim. That’s not argument; it’s mere propaganda, and crude propaganda to boot–the sort that right-wing polemicist Lionel Chetwynd, who’s quickly getting a reputation as Bush’s chief cinematic booster, is known for. When you get right down to it, this picture is nothing more than an elongated negative Bush campaign advertisement; and from this perspective at least, not a very effective one.
The last point to be made is that the presence of Michael Medved as one of the supposed experts regularly deferred to here is especially off-putting. Medved comes across as a smug, sanctimonious irritant even when he’s talking about something he’s knowledgeable about, but here he’s trotted out simply to bad-mouth Kerry, with whom he went to college (though he was a couple of years, and apparently a few pounds of brainpower, behind him) and whom he remembers as “pompous” (quite an accusation from somebody who’s rivaled only by Bill Bennett in trying to become our national nanny). Medved’s recollections seem nothing more than sour grapes born of envy and a feeling of inferiority, which in this case appears to be entirely justified, and from a misplaced sense of priorities (his only “substantive” complaint about Kerry is that he didn’t mention Israel in his acceptance speech), and his unattractiveness as a person simply oozes from the screen.
Unlike “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which will remain interesting well post-November 2 for its qualities as film, “Celsius 41.11” will retain nothing more than curiosity value as a historical relic after the election. And before then it doesn’t have much more value, either.