There's Something About W / Ryan Lindsey
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
There’s Something About W is the most informative, enjoyable political documentary I’ve yet seen. Lacking the ham-fisted pedantry of Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) and the smugness of Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed and Uncovered), the 40 volunteer filmmakers and associates who put this piece together have created something that seeks more to inform than to persuade. And perhaps more important than informing — at least in today’s polarized political landscape — they make you laugh. You should buy as many copies as you can and send them to any undecided voters you know; were it to receive the distribution it deserves, it might well change the outcome of the November election.
Beginning with George W. Bush’s August 2003 speech to the Republican National Convention, the current president himself sets the guidelines for deciding your next vote: “To lead this nation to a responsibility era, the president himself must be responsible.” The film then asks us to decide for ourselves if Bush has lived up to that standard
To that end, W is laid out like an educational film punctuated with humor, with the narrator (Peter Coyote) sounding the part, delivering a non-partisan introduction:
As election day 2004 nears, there are many unanswered questions about dramatic changes that have taken place during the presidency of George W. Bush, reflecting on issues ranging from health care to education, from jobs to the environment. We ask, ‘Is our country moving backward?’
Considering the war in Iraq and mounting national debt, we wonder have our tax dollars been spent wisely, will our children’s future be more secure, have our lives improved over the last four years? We live in an era of spin and sound bites, which the White House and mainstream media deliver daily to the public, leaving out important facts. This film takes a close look at the promises George W. Bush made versus the actions he has taken, leaving it to you — the voter — to decide if he has earned the trust of our great nation.
It’s a testament to the integrity of the film that it achieves the lofty goal of answering questions with facts, which are beholden to neither party, rather than bludgeoning the viewer with partisan dialogue. Its value is in the subjects of its inquiry, broken down into nine tidy sections.
The first of these is “W’s War,” which is disappointingly the least effective of the nine. Because current polls suggest that the 2004 presidential election might well hinge on constituents’ concerns about the situation in Iraq, this should have been the most unambiguous. While it offers the major Bush administration players delivering speech after terrifying speech about weapons of mass destruction, it relies on the viewer to bring to the table the legitimate response to the allegation, which is that the claims were false, based on incorrect assumptions, and in one instance, falsified information. Ideally, the filmmakers would have provided an unequivocal rebuttal to the WMD mantra.
As to the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime was connected to al-Qaeda, the film establishes the inaccuracy of the allegation using Congressional footage of a report prepared not by Congress but by the Bush administration itself. Issued a month after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the document entitled “Countries Where Al Qaeda Has Operated” glaringly omitted Iraq from the list. This is solid evidence, but the case would have been strengthened by including the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission’s statements debunking the Saddam/al-Qaeda connection.
The next section, titled “Who benefits from the tax cuts?” offers a damning assessment of Bush’s economic policies by demonstrating that his tax cuts gave 99 percent of Americans an average tax cut of five percent while it gave a 17 percent tax cut to the wealthiest one percent of the citizens. Next, the filmmakers tackle the Republican-espoused “death tax,” showing a clip of a speech in which Bush says, “On principle, every family, every farmer and small business person should be free to pass on their life’s work to those they love. So we will abolish the death tax.” The clip is followed by Kevin Phillips, a former Republican White House strategist under Nixon, explaining that the estate tax is paid only by millionaires.
The film leaves it to the viewer to make the reasonable assumption that only a very small percentage of families and farmers and small business owners are millionaires, thereby exposing the president’s semantic manipulations. Enter Princeton economist/New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to simplify the situation: Bush is changing tax policy in a way that will leave the working man paying the taxes while those who don’t have to work, who simply have millions given to them, will pay nothing. That his tax policy has driven the 2000 national debt from $5.6 trillion to $7.3 trillions dollars in 2004 doesn’t bode well, either.
“What about workers?” presents stark figures of what has occurred during four years of Bush, who is projected to be the only president of the last 70 years to preside over a net loss of jobs. Average wages and salaries have decreased by 1.7 percent while corporate profits have soared by 57.5 percent; people who lose their jobs take an average pay cut of 21 percent upon finding new jobs; today’s average 25-year-old makes two dollars less per hour than the average 25-year-old of 30 years ago. This segment is topped off with the concession that Bush’s tax cuts have indeed created new jobs—millions of them. Just in other countries. Indeed, Forrester Research projects that by the end of 2005, U.S. firms will increase outsourcing by 60 percent.
The film next addresses the question “Why not affordable healthcare?” Since 2000, four million Americans have lost health coverage, mostly due to loss of employment. Despite this, Bush touts his Medicare prescription drug benefit as a bright new day for American healthcare. Congress passed the legislation at a predicted cost of $400 billion; we’re now told it will cost upwards of $540 billion. Here the film would have benefited by offering at least a brief discussion of the White House’s suppression of the more accurate estimate of government actuary Richard S. Foster.
Though it doesn’t adequately examine the deceptively low cost of the drug benefit, the film does scrutinize the process of moving the bill through our legislature: 750 lobbyists and $100 million went into pressing the bill through our 535-member Congress, creating a situation that Dr. Helen Halpin, Professor of Health Policy at University of California, Berkeley, calls “a free lunch to the pharmaceutical companies to go ahead and raise their prices as high as they want — sky’s the limit — make a big profit at the expense of old people with chronic conditions who desperately need medications to control their disease.”
The fifth section, “Withering of the Middle Class,” is brief but effective. Over the past 25 years, poor Americans have experienced only a negligible income increase, and the middle class has seen an increase of approximately 15 percent in earnings that are more the result of longer hours than higher wages. During the same period, those individuals earning more than $300,000 a year have seen a dramatic income increase of 300 percent. Comments are offered, but combined with the information offered in the earlier “What About Workers?” the figures speak volumes on their own.
The next section is the most hurried. “W’s Idea of Reform” presents fact and commentary regarding Bush’s under-funded No Child Left Behind Act; it dissects his Healthy Forest Initiative that opens federal land (and its old-growth timber) to loggers; it presents Bush’s decision to disallow Clean Air Act regulation of carbon dioxide, which is the most significant of all global warming-causing greenhouse gases; and it examines the USA PATRIOT Act that is arguably destructive to Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. As they often do to push their points, the filmmakers allow administration members to undermine their own arguments, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft’s statement regarding the effects of the USA PATRIOT Act on Constitutional rights: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aide terrorists.” Rumsfeld is clearly immune to the irony of his statement’s clear opposition to the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
The last two question-based sections could easily be combined. “Washington Takeover” and “World Domination” are, in short, the presentation of an administration that is attempting to simultaneously destroy the federal government, secure partisan power, and perpetuate the ideals of a “New American Century,” which is, essentially, global imperialism. Though all the points of these sections are certainly applicable to today’s political discourse, the most pointed might well have been included in the earlier “W’s War.” No commentary is offered here, nor is it necessary; the facts alone are sufficiently troubling: When Bush stood before the “Mission Accomplished” banner on May 1, 2003, 138 U.S. soldiers had died, 545 U.S. soldiers had been wounded, and approximately 7,350 Iraqis had perished since the United States went to war on Iraq. As of August 1, 2004, 913 U.S. soldiers had died, 5,976 U.S. soldiers had been wounded, and upwards of 13,000 Iraqi lives had been lost. Mission accomplished, indeed.
Aside from the events in Iraq, though, one wants to think one’s government might concern itself with correcting the nation’s problems, but Charles Lewis, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, argues that the Bush administration is more concerned with politics than policy; they have let it be known that they won’t entertain meeting requests from interest groups or trade organizations that aren’t headed by Republicans. Political commentator/humorist Molly Ivins, who has been covering Bush since he was running for governor of Texas, adds, “Government is a tool; it’s like a hammer—you can use a hammer to build with, or you can use a hammer to destroy with.” The film asks that the viewer decide how George W. Bush is using the tool he has been given.
The last section of There’s Something About W, titled simply “We The People,” ends as it should, skillfully avoiding preaching to the choir, focusing its efforts instead on informing the electorate. After explaining that only 49 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2000 elections, after reexamining the debacle of that election and the tiny margin by which it was decided, after making clear that despite party affiliation your vote does count and should be cast, Coyote intones, “Use your power, take a stand, vote November second.”
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.