Director : Michael Moore
Screenplay : Michael Moore
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
What a difference a year makes …
When documentary filmmaker and outspoken activist Michael Moore accepted his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine at the 2003 Academy Awards, he was booed off the stage when he unexpectedly launched into an angry rant against George W. Bush’s “fictional” Presidency and the “fictional” war then being waged in Iraq. A little over a year later (and a few hundred dead Americans and no foreseeable stability in Iraq), with Palm d’Or comfortably in hand and now the bragging rights of a surprisingly robust opening weekend take at the box office, Michael Moore is standing tall with Fahrenheit 9/11, his scathingly funny documentary-cum-polemic about everything that’s wrong with the Bush Presidency.
Make no mistake: Fahrenheit 9/11 is an impressive piece of political filmmaking, the kind that has the power to change minds, which is why some people are so afraid of it (Disney, as we all well know, refused to distribute it). Staunch conservatives will lambaste it as leftist hooey, with right-wing pundits already lining up to nitpick the facts as Moore presents them. Liberals, on the other hand, will cheer Moore’s sharp invective since he’s telling them in grand fashion on the big screen exactly what they want to hear: Bush is at best a moron, at worst a bald-faced liar, and the war in Iraq was morally indefensible. This is all obvious; where Fahrenheit 9/11 will really make a difference is if it can sway those crouched in the middle, those who want to believe in the Bush Administration’s insistence that the war in Iraq is for the greater good, but are increasingly dismayed by the deaths of American soldiers, the still constant threat of terrorism, and the obvious conclusion that the supposed justification for the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, simply don’t exist.
Despite Moore’s signature sarcastic tone, the film Fahrenheit 9/11 immediately brings to mind is Peter Davis’ powerful 1975 documentary Hearts and Minds, which explored U.S. involvement in Vietnam from both sides. Like that film, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks at war from multiple sides, showing the points of view of American soldiers stationed in Iraq, their families back home, and also the Iraqi civilians whose lives are often destroyed.
However, before Moore gets to all that, he establishes his argument for why Bush’s Presidency is invalid to begin with. There’s nothing particularly new here as Moore revisits the election debacle of 2000 and then shows how Bush was essentially a lame duck President (who spent 42% of his first 8 months of office on vacation) until the fateful morning of September 11 when those planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, forever changing everything. Moore argues that Bush and his allies shamelessly exploited this tragic event to strengthen their position by misleading the American public. He underscores this by showing the vast ties the Bush family has to not only the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers, but to the family of Osama bin Laden himself.
Again, there is really nothing new here. But, what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 so powerful and impossible to ignore is the way in which Moore assembles all this information to make his point. He edits together familiar news footage with footage many have not seen, most notably the video camera footage of Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat to an elementary school classroom for a full seven minutes after being told by an advisor that the second tower had been struck and the country was “under attack.” The most resilient mythology of the last few years has been the image of Bush as the strong war President, the man who truly came into his own when the going got tough, and that more than anything is the target at which Moore takes aim.
Moore is the most successful documentary filmmaker in the history of the medium, but he’s never been a particularly great one. His films are often uneven, with clumsy editing and a sledgehammer rhetorical approach whose fast-and-loose approach to the facts and smart-ass demeanor supplies too much ammunition to his critics. While not a radical depature from his well-worn style, Fahrenheit 9/11 stands as a sign of cinematic maturity for Moore. He finally matches his rhetorical power with an aesthetic sensibility that is at times almost artful. Granted, he still lays it on thick at times with twangy banjo music and silly sound effects, but there are moments in which he drives his points home visually in a way that stuns you into silence. One great example is his approach to depicting September 11th: Rather than seeing the planes hit for the upteen-millionth time, we are forced to watch a dead black screen while listening to the awful sounds of crashing, burning, and screaming, which is enough to send chills down your spine. He also makes the editing work to his advantage, often juxtaposing moments of humor with sudden moments of terror and violence, most notable when he follows shots of Bush aboard the aircraft carrier in the ultimate photo op (humorously scored to Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It Or Not”) with an unexpected explosion in an Iraqi building that engulfs a U.S. soldier.
For much of the film, Moore is physically absent, which makes it something of a departure from his previous films in which he was often the center of attention. His presence remains, though, in his snarky voice-over narration that is probably what riles those who disagree with him the most. As a populist entertainer and activist, Moore has few equals, although he has a way of sometimes coming off as too sarcastic and belligerent for his own good (it’s great if you agree with him, but grating otherwise). His mocking tone sometimes gives him a holier-than-thou authority that undermines his populist intentions. But, here it works because his purpose is to expose a horrible joke. How else could he be?
The evidence Moore amasses is frightening, even if we know that some of it is likely taken out of context and exaggerated to fits his rhetorical needs. Yet, even if half of everything in Fahrenheit 9/11 is inaccurate (which I doubt it is), it would still be a deeply disconcerting film. Love it or hate it, this is an important film and one that won’t go away. Some may think that Moore is in bad taste to mock the sitting President in this manner, but they should be reminded that one of the greatest freedoms we have in the United States is the right to criticize our elected leaders. Whether you agree with him or not, Moore made Fahrenheit 9/11 as an act of patriotism, a call to save a country he loves and believes is being lost to fat cats and corporate powerhouses. It won’t be enough to change the election come November, but it will cause people to think, which is the best thing one can say about it.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © Lions Gate Films