An American Carol (2008)

Rating:

USA. 2008.

Crew

Director – David Zucker, Screenplay – Lewis Friedman, Myrna Sokoloff & David Zucker, Producers – Stephen McEveety, John Shepherd & David Zucker, Photography – Brian Baugh, Music – James L. Venable, Visual Effects – Stargate Digital (Supervisor – Victor Scalise), Special Effects Supervisor – Matt Kutcher, Production Design – Patrick Sullivan. Production Company – Vivendi Entertainment/MPower Distribution

Cast

Kevin Farley (Michael Malone), Kelsey Grammer (General George S. Patton), Robert Davi (Aziz), Geoffrey Arend (Mohammed), Serdar Kalsin (Ahmed), Chriss Anglin (John F. Kennedy), Travis Schuldt (Josh), Trace Adkins (Himself/Angel of Death), Bill O’Reilly (Himself), Leslie Nielsen (Grandfather), Vickie Browne (Rosie O’Connell), Jon Voight (George Washington), Jesse Heiman (Young Michael Malone), Dennis Hopper (Judge Henderson), James Woods (Michael’s Agent), Gail O’Grady (Jane Wagstaffe), Benton Jennings (Hitler), Oliver Muirhead (Neville Chamberlain), Kevin Sorbo (George Mulrooney), Anna Osceola (Molly Duncan), Christopher MacDonald (Lab Supervisor)


Plot

During a Fourth of July family barbeque, a grandfather goes to tell his grandchildren the story of Scrooge but instead decides to tell them the story of someone who hated the Fourth of July. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were losing and concluded that they needed to recruit someone to make films to promote their cause. Deciding they needed to find a Hollywood filmmaker who hated America, they travelled to the USA to employ egotistical, self-absorbed documentary filmmaker Michael Malone, who had had success with a series of documentaries about how bad America is. As Michael prepared his plans to hold mass demonstrations to cancel the Fourth of July, his hero John F. Kennedy stepped out of the tv to remonstrate Michael and his claims that Kennedy did not believe in America going to war. During the night, Michael also received a visit from General Patton who took Michael on a tour through history to show him the necessity of going to war. In the present, Michael saw how his nephew Josh, who was preparing to go to the war in the Middle East, and his own family regarded Michael as a jerk. In the future, Michael saw how his insistence on negotiating and making peace with terrorists left America open for an attack that killed him. Through this, Michael learned to repent of his anti-war ways and embrace a love of America again.


As soon as I heard about An American Carol – an American Conservative film that turns Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) into a modern parable where a liberal filmmaker who in all but name is meant to be Michael Moore is visited by ghosts and gets to repent of America-hating ways – I knew that I had to see it. It had a compulsively ghastly fascination to it in the same way that unashamedly political treatises of the past such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) where angels influence a weak American president to become more ruthless against gangsters and the rest of the world; Red Planet Mars (1952) where God is on Mars and sends radio messages that inspire the overthrow of Communism; and Red Dawn (1984) where the Communists overthrow the US and high school kids maintain an armed insurrection, do.

An American Carol is made by David Zucker. I want to be careful in writing this and not treat Zucker in the same contemptuous way that he treats Michael Moore throughout the film. First of all, let me state that I think that David Zucker has made a number of laudable and funny films in the past. Co-directing with Jim Abrahams and his brother Jerry, Zucker made Airplane/Flying High (1980), which is the template of modern movie spoofs that people like the Wayans Brothers and Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer draw from. It is also one of the funniest. In the same movie parody vein, Zucker and the same co-directors also made the equally amusing WWII movie parody Top Secret (1984) and the non-parody comedy Ruthless People (1986). On his own, David Zucker directed other parody movies such as The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991), BASEketball (1998), Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006), while he has produced further parodies such as High School High (1996), The Onion Movie (2008), Superhero Movie (2008) and Scary MoVie (2013).

I will also state my own biases upfront. In terms of what we believe to be true about the world, David Zucker and I stand at almost completely opposed poles. Zucker is clearly proud to be an American and is a fervent patriot who believes that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. I, on the other hand, am not an American. I am prepared to argue that America is the greatest solely on a limited statement of basic facts – you can not argue that it has enormous political influence, military might and economic power; what I tend to dispute is whether that equates to moral superiority as there are a vast number of issues (its treatment of its own poor, its penal system, the chaos of its health system, a political system that allows the democratic process to be swayed by vested interest groups, and its 19th Century attitudes towards gun ownership, abortion, capital execution and censorship) where it holds a less-than-enlightened attitude. I also loathe patriotism – there is no crime in being proud of your country but when that extends to denying that it has any faults and minimising its crimes, the only term to describe such becomes wilful ignorance. David Zucker is also an ardent Republican; I hold such a position in disdain – it is an outlook that seems solely designed to sway legislation to protect positions of privilege and is either indifferent to or scornful of the poor and less advantaged in society.

I also enjoy the works of Michael Moore – Roger and Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) and Where to Invade Next (2016), as well as his various tv ventures. In tackling the bedrock of American conservatism in his films – corporate America and its screwing over of the poor, gun control, healthcare, George W. Bush and the Iraq War, the deregulation of the economy that led to the 2008-9 recession – Michael Moore has become the target of an extraordinary degree of ire from American conservatives. There is an astonishing amount of space on the blogosphere, even entire documentaries – Michael Moore Hates America (2004), Manufacturing Dissent (2007), Shooting Michael Moore (2008) – devoted to tearing Moore down. Most of this fragments off into disputing the minutiae of Moore’s presentation of facts or throws out accusations about whether Moore rearranges the truth to make his points. I tend to defend Moore here – as a documentarian, Moore is an inheritor of the gonzo journalism school of Hunter S. Thompson. (There is not a huge amount of difference between Moore’s approach and Thompson works like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1972) where Thompson set out after Richard Nixon in much the same way as Moore did George W. Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11). No journalist can be expected to know all of the facts and will frequently make errors or assumptions (far more than most people credit), while there is no such thing as interview material that has not been edited, or sometimes blatantly transposed to make things seem more alarmist or worse than it is intended. (I know, I have worked as a journalist). Rather, I celebrate Moore as a welcome agent provocateur who is asking hard questions that need to be asked about modern America. His is no different to the ambush tactics that every tv journalist uses to try and get the low-down on the latest scandal. If you are to slam Moore for his tactics, then they are criticisms that apply to almost every other current affairs journalist employed today.

What becomes distasteful about An American Carol is how David Zucker ridicules and throws an extraordinary number of insults in the direction of Michael Moore because he clearly does not agree with Moore’s views, in particular Moore’s opposition to the Iraq War. These go waaaaay beyond disagreeing with Moore’s position, even beyond the acceptable position of being satire, into the nastily personal. It is constantly suggested that the film’s stand-in for Moore needs a shower or breath mints, has people putting him down because he is fat, is constantly referred to as ‘douchebag’ or an ‘asshole’, and it snidely suggested that he is not able to get laid. One running gag has Moore being slapped in the face by everybody he meets, including one Girl Scout who does so “for being a fat, ignorant sack of shit” and others simply “because they enjoy it”. In one extraordinary scene, an awards ceremony compares Moore’s films to the work of Leni Riefenstahl and her propaganda films that supported Nazism. In another scene, David Zucker even offers up an It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)-like alternate history sequence where Michael Moore is shown as being a slave owner. The central role is played by David Farley (the brother of the late comedian Chris Farley) with a contemptuous loudmouth tone that is designed to make Michael Moore seem as obnoxious as possible – even when the character undergoes his redemption at the end, Farley and Zucker keep piling on the ridicule and making him seem like a jerk.

The criticism is not limited to Michael Moore, various other celebrities of a liberal bent are in for it too – including Rosie O’Donnell and Jimmy Carter, while Kevin Sorbo plays George Mulrooney, who is clearly modelled on George Clooney and is derided for making Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) and resurrecting the spectre of Joseph McCarthy “when it no longer exists” (ie. holds any relevance) and besmirching McCarthy’s name. There are snide snipings at anti-Iraq War films like Lions for Lambs (2007) and Redacted (2007). Indeed, David Zucker takes aim at almost any opponent of his own point-of-view. At one point, we see students protesting against military recruiters on campus whereupon Leslie Nielsen’s grandchildren ask him “What’s a demonstration?” and he answers: “It’s when people show what they don’t know by repeating it loudly.” There is an amazing song-and-dance number that attacks university academics for indoctrinating their liberal points-of-view in today’s youth where Zucker claims that parents would be shocked if they knew exactly what their kids were being taught. There is a sequence where George Romero-type zombies invade a courtroom and have to be fought off with shotguns: “They aren’t people, they’re the ACLU” (which is an irony as George Romero created his zombie films as liberal metaphors that were deeply critical of the conservative establishment). There is even a song over the end credits with a band singing about how they are proud to be rednecks.

If I were to write the review in the same tone that David Zucker treats Michael Moore, it would go something like this: “An American Carol is a film where David Zucker ridicules Michael Moore for criticising the Iraq War. How could someone be such a moron to believe the Iraq War was justified? David Zucker is a fugly scum-sucking moron, has a small dick, an IQ that is in the low double-digits, is probably so embittered because he can’t get it up anymore, because he believes in ludicrous ideas like America is the greatest country in the world. This means that the film is terrible. Everyone should go and watch more liberal films.”

Here at Moria, we try not to deal in the cheap shot or allow criticism of a public work to traverse into personal attacks. I think David Zucker has made an extremely bad film. My reasons are nothing to do with David Zucker as a human being, nor the political views he holds, or even my disagreement with them; they are simply that An American Carol is a bad film. I am of the firm belief that good criticism is not about simply agreeing/disagreeing with the viewpoints that a work puts across. For example, I enjoyed enormously films like Team America: World Police (2004), which similarly regarded Michael Moore and the Hollywood liberal elite with disdain, and All That Money Can Buy/The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) that argued for American patriotism with such fervour that it almost had you believing too. I also greatly enjoyed Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers (1960), even though it argues ardently in favour of militarism in a way that is even more extreme than anything that David Zucker does here.

My main criticism is that there seems to be very little occasion in An American Carol where David Zucker actually comes up with any arguments as to why he thinks Michael Moore is wrong. Rather he seems to make his entire point the same way that conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh do – by assuming that his audience shares the same points-of-view he does and spending the rest of the time jeering at and ridiculing the source of his ire. About the one argument that Zucker does make is that it is sometimes necessary to go to war – citing the necessity of the Allies taking a strong stand against Adolf Hitler during World War II and of Abraham Lincoln’s entering the Civil War to put an end to slavery. There is also a scene where a John F. Kennedy lookalike steps out of a tv set and regales Moore for idolising him without realising that Kennedy was prepared to go to war. The problem with these two arguments is that there is no proof that Michael Moore believes the contrary of either position (please, anybody write me if they can find any statements Moore has made otherwise).

I have not read enough of Michael Moore’s writings to know whether he is someone who believes that all war is wrong but I doubt it – this seems a position that only the most extreme pacifist would be prepared to argue. If I read Fahrenheit 9/11 rightly, I think Moore’s position was a very different one to that – not that all war is wrong, merely that the justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong (the lack of proof that Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction, that the US had no legal or moral authority for engaging in a pre-emptive war). It seems disingenuous of David Zucker to blur the distinction between these two positions. David Zucker also happily maintains the complete fiction that many of the American public buy into that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were terrorists and directly tied to 9/11 when in fact Saddam Hussein ran a secular Iraq and disdained jihadi fundamentalism.

The film’s claim that Michael Moore idolises John F. Kennedy while remaining ignorant that Kennedy advocated preparedness to go to war seems specious at best, a blatant falsification at worst. It is surely impossible that anybody who had conducted a surface reading of Kennedy’s story – even as little as reading Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry – could seriously maintain that Kennedy was never prepared to go to war – you need go no further than pointing to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am prepared to give Michael Moore, who usually seems reasonably well informed about the world, enough credit to believe that he doesn’t maintain such an absurd position. And if it is the case that Michael Moore hasn’t claimed that Kennedy was never prepared to go to war, this surely makes David Zucker as ill informed about his target of satire (Moore) as he claims that Moore is being about Kennedy. And when one of the big arguments that the film is wielding against Moore is something as specious as that, then it is surely only makes the film itself only worthy of ridicule.

The redemption that the film’s Scrooge equivalent eventually reaches is to see the error of his ways. “And it turned out that Americans actually wanted to see movies that had good things to say about America,” Leslie Nielsen’s grandfather states (with the implication being that An American Carol is one of those films). Unfortunately such a claim proved a woeful indicator of the national psyche and An American Carol fared dismally in US theatrical release, earning only $7 million. The problem that An American Carol has is its approach. It is so blatant in what it is trying to say that the only people who went to see it were the die-hard faithful supporters of David Zucker’s point-of-view, which made it into a case of preaching to the choir as opposed to finding new recruits to the cause.

Even in terms of making the farcical/slapstick comedy he is usually noted for, David Zucker fails – the film seems so overburdened with message-making that it drains the comedy out. Even something as simple as Travis Schuldt walking into David Farley’s campaign headquarters is subverted by points the film is trying to make: assistant to Schuldt: “Are you here for Sailors Against War?” “I think all sailors are against war but sometimes we have to fight,” “Are you here for Sailors Against Guns?” “Those guns come in handy when we have to fight” and so on. The one sequence where Zucker finds some of his old glory is the Radical Christians clip, which starts in with an amusing idea of Christians as akin to Islamic hijackers, but never hits any truly satiric point. An opening sequence featuring an instruction video for Taliban suicide bombers could have been bitingly funny but instead emerges incredibly unfunny. (It seems a sad indicator when the notoriously bad Uwe Boll’s crude satiric jabs at 9/11 terrorists in Postal (2007) are funnier than anything that David Zucker manages to conjure up in the entire film here). Zucker even manages to trash the good name of Charles Dickens – where Dickens created Tiny Tim as an object lesson to teach Scrooge empathy for the suffering of others, Zucker reduces Tiny Tim (now three of them) to Wayans Brothers-type gags with David Farley accidentally knocking all of them off the pier in his attempts to salute.

David Zucker has marshalled a large cast of names, including people like James Woods, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Robert Davi, Leslie Nielsen (who found a career in parody movies after Zucker’s Airplane and Naked Gun films), country singer Trace Adkins, Gary Coleman, David Alan Grier, Kevin Sorbo, Christopher McDonald, Fox News Channel talkshow host/pundit Bill O’Reilly, even Paris Hilton. It appears that Zucker has recruited these persons because most of them are noted and outspoken advocates of the Republican Party or conservative causes. The one who comes out of the show the best is Kelsey Grammer. Grammer gives us a gruff, tough, although ultimately far too cuddly, General Patton, where he seems to absorb himself in the part such that one never picked it was Grammer playing the part until the end credits.

In the end, An American Carol comes out exactly like a vision of blind patriotism – that America is good no matter what. There is the token admission that the country is not perfect but at the same time a blithe denial that it is capable of or has ever been guilty of any wrongdoing. The Iraq War is seen as a wholesomely good thing for America and its critics as worthy of ridicule and contempt. Zucker even comes across as a die-hard conservative who is unwilling to admit the Senator McCarthy and the Vietnam War were anything other than perfectly justified. To me, this seems a viewpoint so far disappeared into a conviction of its own rightness that one can only throw their arms up in the air at the futility of arguing with someone who can hold such an outlook in the face of an overwhelming body of facts to the contrary.

I bear no ill feeling towards David Zucker. In fact, what I wish is that he would get exactly what he wants and could be shipped off to Iraq to fulfil his patriotic duty and proudly have his ass shot at for his country. There seems little better guaranteed to shake up someone’s illusions about the glory of serving in combat and dying for one’s country than the reality of going onto a battlefield. The truth is that people return from war with their notions of patriotic idealism burned out, finding the horrors they have witnessed (and engaged in) traumatic, rarely a grandiose rush that makes them feel they have done good by their country. I wish that David Zucker could go and witness the reality for himself. After all, I would not wish to be so mean-spirited as to accuse him of telling others that they should die for their country without actually having been prepared to put his own life on the line.

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2008 list).



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