Pre-sold, unsold and resold amid a tsunami of mostly self-generated publicity, Fahrenheit 9/11 comes encrusted with so much advance bluster, one goes to the movie expecting it to drop a 10,000-pound bomb on George Bush’s head. In fact the film, which has little in the way of fresh dirt on Bush or his government’s lousy record at home and abroad, is Michael Moore’s most sober film yet. That’s not saying much: Fahrenheit 9/11 is still a roaring, and for the most part richly deserved, hatchet job on the Bush presidency. It’s also a bid to recapture patriotism from the conservatives and enshrine it as a left virtue, largely by paying its respects to the dispossessed Americans who are staffing a war they don’t understand and, increasingly, don’t want to wage. Whether these same Americans will go to see Fahrenheit 9/11 remains an open question. Juiced by the success of Bowling for Columbine, the hungry distributors of Moore’s new film (Lions Gate Films, IFC Films, and something called the Fellowship Adventure Group, which sounds like a Quaker scouting organization) plan to open the movie on hundreds of screens across the country, surely a first for any documentary.
If that’s what you want to call Fahrenheit 9/11. Whether you see the movie as a persuasive alterna-history of recent Republican government or a crude demolition job on Bush — it’s both, in spades — will depend as much on what you think nonfiction film is supposed to do as it will on your political affiliations. The reporting is hardly new. You’d have to be hopelessly out of the loop not to have heard about the unholy business ties between the Bushes and those “lovely human beings” (as a Saudi friend of the Bushes calls them in the movie) the bin Ladens. (It’s right there in Moore’s most recent book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, though it wasn’t he who broke the story, but the Boston Globe.) Or about the government’s pre-9/11 failure to attend to evidence of a coming attack on the United States by al Qaeda. Or about its milking of post-9/11 public fears to create a bogus, not to say incompetent, war on terror, which, according to Moore, was designed to soften up the public for a coming war with Iraq.
Moore is too savvy a media wrangler not to realize that most news dates in five minutes these days. But he’s a master cutter and paster of other people’s images to suit his own ends. (Perhaps that’s what Quentin Tarantino was referring to when, handing Moore the Palme d’Or at Cannes, he found it necessary to stress that Fahrenheit 9/11 won for good filmmaking, not for its politics.) And he’s a very funny guy, which is why he gets $6 million to make his movies, while the growing numbers of other lefty political documentarians labor on with their video cameras and their $2,000 budgets. But even as you’re laughing, you get the uncomfortable sense you’re being recruited, and not always honestly, to Moore’s us-and-them point of view. So while it is enormously entertaining to watch footage of the idiotic gizmos (among them, a man-size safe, and a miniparachute that lets you leap 10 stories and more in the attempt to save yourself from dark-skinned predators) invented by entrepreneurial wannabes to capitalize on the war on terror, or the lone state trooper assigned to protect several hundred miles of vulnerable Oregon coastline from terrorists, you also remember just how anxious you really felt after September 11. Likewise, it is fun to see Paul Wolfowitz spit on his comb before raking it though his hair, or Bush fidgeting irritably under a television makeup person’s fussing, though in mid-yuk you almost forget to ask what that tells you about the way either man does his job.
Moore does some useful, if hardly new, skewering of the gap between Bush’s words and his policies, among them his fulsome praise for “our boys in Iraq” even as he recommends cuts in the pay of combat soldiers and assistance to their families. But Moore has never been good at drawing the line between political critique and personal attack — or worse, he recognizes it and presses on regardless. Those of us who are driven up the wall by Bush’s frat-boy humor, by the disingenuous folksiness with which he dispenses meaningless bromides in his speeches, or who were nauseated by the cowboy swagger of his landing on that aircraft carrier, may get a big kick out of seeing him ridiculed, but we may end up feeling bought. It’s in his lampooning of Bush the man that Moore is at his most effective — and also at his cheapest. More than once Moore shows us Bush’s face in close-up on September 11 as, preparing to read My Pet Goat to a group of inner-city elementary schoolers, he tries to absorb the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Beady eyes swiveling in agitation, he gazes vacantly around the room for several minutes, then starts reading to the kids. In his softly insinuating voice-over, Moore reads the scene for us as a classic case of Bush being unable to function without a script. It is just as likely that, like the rest of us on hearing those first reports, the man was in total shock. And what Moore fails to tell us is that even some on the left admired the way Bush handled himself in the days after the disaster. The president may have shifty eyes and an unhelpful way with syntax, but that in itself doesn’t make him an idiot. In the current issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows argues that Bush began his political career with substantial debating skills, and that although they seem to have gone AWOL while he’s been in office, he may yet give John Kerry a run for his money in the presidential debates. Certainly he gives Moore a run in Fahrenheit 9/11. When the filmmaker shouts out a question across a crowded room, Bush yells back affably, “Behave yourself. And get a real job.”
For better and worse, Moore is a simplifier who extracts both heavy irony and heavy tragedy from the juxtaposition of unrelated images. Perhaps in response to critical distaste for his emotionally manipulative style, Moore has scaled back his own presence in Fahrenheit 9/11, and mostly for the better. He’s still there, guiding our responses in voice-over. But the stunts aimed at embarrassing the rich and powerful, or educating the poor and dispossessed, are few and far between. We see him being hassled by the Secret Service just for hanging around the Saudi Embassy, then outside the Capitol as he hassles bemused congressmen to sign up their own sons for service in Iraq. When it comes to ordinary people, Moore has always been something of an emotional terrorist, a practitioner of what Saul Bellow calls “potato love” — smothering people you barely know with pseudo-intimacy and flattery until you have them eating out of your hand. In Moore’s earlier films, when you saw that big, protective paw settle around the shoulders of an unsuspecting regular Joe, you knew some serious psychological pressure was about to come down. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore holds back, and properly so. Back home in chronically unemployed Flint, Michigan, he finds Lila Lipscomb, a self-styled conservative Democrat who sent all her kids to the military and then, after the death of one of her sons in Iraq, became disenchanted with the war. In some of the movie’s most genuinely affective moments, Moore tactfully remains off camera and allows this passionate, highly articulate woman to speak for herself.
He’s not quite so hands-off with the imagery of war. Moore shows us a pre-war Baghdad of kids playing in the streets and smiling men eating in sidewalk cafés — I guess it was harder to get footage of the thousands who disappeared into Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers — and of Iraq now, with wounded children screaming in pain from the ruins of their bombed houses. He shows us U.S. soldiers conducting humiliating house-to-house searches (“Immoral behavior begets immoral behavior,” Moore intones, fingering their superiors in Washington lest we blame the proletarian grunts themselves) and being carried away wounded themselves. “And for what?” someone asks rhetorically.
Well, yes. As I write, evidence is pouring out of the 9/11 Commission report that in terms of the official reasons for which it was waged — the famous disappearing WMDs, Hussein’s alleged ties to al Qaeda and his alleged plot to attack the United States — the invasion of Iraq has been an unqualified disaster. Moore, though, wants us to see the mere existence of casualties as proof that the war is illegitimate. Would he take the same approach for casualties of World War II? Or, more pertinently, a war waged on Iraq for the purposes of freeing the country of a despot with the blood of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens on his hands? The awful truth is that every war has its dead and dying, but we are still obliged to distinguish between wars that are morally justified and those that are not. It is not intrinsically right-wing to believe that powerful nations have a duty to help free weaker ones from internal tyranny. Moore is right — though he is hardly the first to say it — that that’s not primarily why Bush went into this war. But the director has boxed himself into arguing that the invasion of Iraq was wrong on any grounds, which sounds suspiciously like isolationism, a problematic position for any leftist with a sense of responsibility to the world beyond his own borders.
Moore has made no secret of his ambitions for Fahrenheit 9/11. He wants the movie to shift the public into voting Bush out of the White House. That may be as grandiose as his hiring of a killer consulting firm to counter any attacks on the movie from the right. (Right now, there’s little Moore can’t take care of on his bellicose lonesome, unless you count Bush Senior, who gets trashed in the movie and has called him a “slimeball” for tarnishing his son’s image, or a cranky Ray Bradbury, who cussed out the filmmaker for stealing the title of his novel Fahrenheit 451 and then changing it without permission.) Movies tend not to topple regimes, however unsavory. Still, Fahrenheit 9/11 may yet accomplish a more modest, if no less salutary goal — severing the thin membrane that binds Harvey Weinstein, who initially bought the film, to Disney, who unloaded it and, in the ensuing bother, all but engineered a smash hit.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 | Written and directed by MICHAEL MOORE Produced by JIM CZARNECKI and KATHLEEN GLYNN | Released by Lions Gate Films, IFC Films and the Fellowship Adventure Group | Citywide