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09.12.07

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Invertebrates

The documentary 'War Made Easy' shows how the press rolls over and plays dead when trumpets blare.

Review by Richard von Busack


I DON'T NEED to see Sean Hannity's pay stub to know I'm in the wrong line of work. The lead-up to the Iraq war showed that nearly every American television commentator was working at the easygoing professional level of the average movie critic.

As seen in the indie documentary War Made Easy by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, with interpretation by media critic Norman Solomon, the Beltway commentators job is an easy one. Mostly it involves finding le mot juste: worrying on camera whether a coming war in Iraq would be better described as "irrevocable" or "inevitable." The pundit then redescribes the scenario, preferably echoing the taglines Will the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud? Will we stay the course or cut and run?

When really moved, he looks for his Shakespeare and misquotes him. That's what Ted Koppel did, wowed by a line of American tanks: "Wreak havoc and unleash the dogs of war!" Considering how this war has gone down, maybe a more apt Henry V quote would come from Act 4, Scene 1: "If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make... it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it."

At last the pundit wraps up his job by critiquing the performances, as Hannity did—for example, raving over Colin Powell's moment of U.N. presentation of Saddam's WMD. Oncamera, Hannity heralds the "irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible evidence"—the kind of piling on of adjectives used during Oscar season to describe the toweringness of Angelina Jolie playing a schizophrenic crack whore.

The documentary's epigraph come from longtime correspondent Sidney Schanberg: "We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We forever want to believe that this time the government is telling the truth." Is this really a native delusional quality—were H.L. Mencken and I guess P.T. Barnum accurate judges of our national character? If so, this is familiar stuff: a mosaic of foaming, wattle-shaking lies, uttered by newscasters who got to be part of the parade.

As Dick Cheney said during the first Gulf War, the media "is a problem to be managed." The Pentagon, resolved never to be caught bare-bottomed again after Vietnam, engineered a boot camp for our fightin' correspondents. And then they were "embedded," in the sense of Casanova embedding a tavern wench. The most dismaying moment of this absolutely necessary documentary is the montage of various reporters chirping about their favorite war planes: kids under the Christmas tree.

The more bloodthirsty, or realpolitikal, might claim that the lies were justified. Americans demand familiar rhetoric, and the face of evil never really changes, call it fascist socialist, Muslim fascist or just plain venal. The world is full of the kind of leaders Jack Warden complained about in the film Used Cars: "Used to be, when you bought a politician, the sumbitch stayed bought." That Warden line might have been going through Rumsfeld's mind when he went after his former business partner Saddam.

However, if you think that such spineless, paid-off journalism is a peril to our republic, then see this film. Sean Penn narrates the montage, some of it quite diverting to those who tried to tune out the drum-beating. Was there really, truly a "Saddam-meter" on Fox News to show how close we were teetering toward war? Did one pundit actually call those who were opposed to the Iraq invasion "millions and millions of useless people"? You might want to call a pundit with blood on his hands something a little worse than "useless."


Movie Times WAR MADE SIMPLE plays Sept. 15 at 7:30pm at the New College of California, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. It also plays at the Elmwood Theater in Berkeley and the Roxie Film Center in San Francisco.


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