Hijacking Catastrophe, a documentary about the co-opting of 9/11 by the Bush administration, begins with a chilling quotation. “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders,” the screen reads. “That is easy. … All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked … and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Uh-oh. This sounds like the deep cynicism of a despot. Machiavelli? Nope. Stalin? Nope. The brooding music prepares us for the worst: The quote is from Hermann Goering, at the Nuremberg war trials.
With that, Hijacking Catastrophe does something that even Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t do. It compares Bush to a Nazi. That’s a brazen move, fitting for a documentary that promotes fearlessness as the ultimate act of citizenship. It’s also melodramatic, which serves the film at first; later, the alarmism loses its power and becomes undermining. Catastrophe is a solid piece of work — important, righteous, and worth seeing — but there’s not a whole lot of room for the viewer. Rather than presenting the evidence and allowing us to form our own opinions, the movie legislates our reactions, scoring the interviews with dark, eerie music and using the narration to persuade rather than explicate. The result is less a sense of having been educated than one of having been lectured.
In its content, Hijacking Catastrophe is similar to Moore’s smash hit. Both movies set out to expose wicked underpinnings of the Bush administration, comprising a cadre of far-right neoconservatives who seek unilateral hegemony for the United States on the world stage. Both assert that the President co-opted a national tragedy to further his own agenda. And both critique the WMD/antiterrorism rhetoric surrounding the Iraq war as a crock of lies, designed to distract our attention from Bush’s true intentions.
The differences are telling. In almost every way, Hijacking Catastrophe is deeper, more thorough, and more rigorous in its claims than Fahrenheit 9/11. For example, the film claims that Bush and his war cabinet are motivated not merely by US oil interests but, far more darkly, by their plans for American empire. Our current leaders intend for the United States to become a unilateral superpower, totally unaccountable to anyone else, including the United Nations — and in launching the Iraq war, they have accomplished the first step in their mission.
Catastrophe traces the history of the “The Wolfowitz Doctrine,” a 1992 document outlining a new military strategy that was initially considered, even by the “neocons,” far too radically right-wing to gain traction. In the doctrine, Paul Wolfowitz (now the deputy secretary of defense) recommended building up the US military with unprecedented funds and using military might to further US ends throughout the world. He painted an image of the United States as an overpowering force that, among other things, could use intimidation to gain access to the world’s dwindling resources.
The document was heavily criticized, and even its supporters had to admit that the kind of regime it sought would take time to achieve — unless (the text ominously suggested) there was a precipitating event on a par with Pearl Harbor. Enter 9/11. Bush saw his opportunity, and he took it. Immediately after that terrible day, the President made the Wolfowitz Doctrine official US policy. And with his decision to attack Iraq despite UN opposition, Bush rejected Article 51 of the United Nations charter, a law designed to prevent nations from using military force to promote their own global domination. This article was used against the Nazis in their war trials. Will it be used against Bush? Not bloody likely.
Meanwhile, the film says, the US populace is being fed a continuous stream of lies to keep us afraid so that we’ll buy into a militarized society. The mainstream media are complicit, glorifying the war with jingoistic graphics and worshipful portrayals of F-18s. Congress is complicit, having passed the PATRIOT Act (which essentially repeals articles of the Bill of Rights) with no debate — and having given the president the money to fund the war. And now that the United States is spending $400 billion a year on defense, nearly equal to the amount of money spent by every other country combined, are we any safer? In fact, it’s just the opposite. We are, as the bumper sticker says, creating enemies faster than we can kill them.
It’s a bloody mess, and Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp, the writer-directors of Catastrophe, are not alone in their outrage. Their vocal opposition to Bush and the concern for our country it implies is courageous and welcome. What they don’t seem to see is that, as much as they criticize the President for fearmongering, their film is not above using the same tactic. The foreboding music doesn’t stop until the final credits roll, at which point one feels as though a cloud of doom has lifted. Also, the film displays many difficult images, mostly of children mangled by bombs, on which the camera lingers for a painfully long time. The point is to confront the audience with the consequences of the United States’ actions, to show us what we are not seeing elsewhere. But because the film is framed with a sense of doom, the images don’t sit right. They’re just a little too sensational, too purposeful, as though they are meant to elicit our horror and sorrow in support of the film’s agenda, and not simply because they are horrible unto themselves. The film would be more successful if, here as elsewhere, the filmmakers had backed off to allow the viewer some space.