You might expect any documentary that deals with the Florida vote count fiasco of 2000 to wend its way inevitably to a rousing match of Nader badmouthing. To Greg Palast's credit, his scalding entry into the Bush-bashing sweepstakes -- "Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" -- does no such thing. He seems to be quietly accepting of the fact that Democrats would have made more honest work for themselves calling bullshit on the obvious chicanery behind the 2000 "election" than taking aim at the very progressive whose ideals they should have been emulating in the first place.
Still, Palast's polemical film remains a shining example of why the left wing of American politics so closely resembles the last trembling leaf of Autumn: It went into terrified hibernation in late 2001 and has yet to fully recover. The good news if Bush becomes a two-termer is two-fold: Obviously, he and his Axis of Unilateralism will have another four years to get caught at something really dirty, but it would also buy the Democrats enough time to reinforce their crumbling platform.
The timing of "Fortunes" is a bit regrettable, though, for one of Palast's most damning interviews is with none other than Bill Burkett, who is currently at the center of the controversy swirling around CBS and its recent use of falsified documents to call President Bush's military record into question. As a result, the entire section of the film that deals with Bush's time in the Texas Air Guard falls a bit flat, though it should have been one of the hightlights. Where Palast seems to be at his most credible is when it comes down to numbers, specifically numbers of African American voters left out in the cold in November of 2000. Obviously, this is a film review, not an investigative report, so I have not taken it upon myself to verify the following information. But if these statistics from the film are even in the ballpark, there's enough shame to go around:
- Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State in charge of the vote count and chair of Dubya's 2000 campaign, halted the ballot count with 179,855 votes uncounted. More than half of these had been cast by black voters.
- 94,000 Florida voters in 2000 were deemed felons and not allowed to vote, though 95% of them were later found innocent.
- 54% of Florida's black population was kept from voting.
And if none of this convinces you that you ought to see "Fortunes," despite its warts, be aware that you will miss out on some great Jim Hightower-isms, not the least of which is, "... [George W. Bush] doesn't have the brain muscle to do any heavy lifting, that's clear. But at the same time, that's not his purpose." I don't need to remind you that we're coming up on a presidential election, so the relevance of this kind of documentary material is especially palpable. Elected politicians tend to be pathological liars, some wearing that badge more proudly than others. When we can trust only the smallest fraction of our mainstream news coverage, documentaries are a logical recourse. Michael Moore has proven that Americans are hungry for a kind of depth that is largely absent from television, print and radio news. The Internet is useful, of course, but who are the fact checkers, the gatekeepers? Organizations like CNN or the New York Times are supposed to have credibility. We want them to be trustworthy so that we can count on them to keep us informed. We shouldn't have to read foreign papers to get the real story behind issues that involve the world, but increasingly we must.
So, somewhere in the stew of recent films like "Fahrenheit 911," "The Corporation" and "Fog of War" floats "Bush Family Fortunes." It's not quite as meaty as it could be, but it's not quite vegetative, either. That it's poured from the conspiratorial ladle of the Disinformation Company will doubtless go a long way to recommend it to some folks.
Filmfodder Grade: B-
Editor's Note: "Bush Family Fortunes" will be released on DVD Sept. 28.