Fahrenheit 9/11
Director: Michael Moore. Documentary. Political essay about the George W. Bush administration and its motives in the Iraq War. Featuring Michael Moore, Lila Lipscomb, and archival footage of George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Osama bin Laden, Richard Clarke.


Somewhere in the second hour of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, as the film's personal undermining of President George W. Bush is giving way to a plaintive appeal on behalf of American and Iraqi lives that are in turn undermined by Bush himself, we are introduced to a U.S. ground soldier who is geared up for a day of military patrolling in Baghdad. The soldier totes an impressively large rucksack of weapons and tools, designed to arm and outfit him appropriately for whatever critical exigency he might encounter amid his martial duties. These armaments extend to a large crowbar, barely contained by the rucksack itself, which the soldier can use to wrest open the doors of any suspicious Iraqi domicile.

Disquieting as it is, this image is one of the most neutral in Moore's documentary-cum-opinion piece. As opposed to other scenes where Moore explicitly lampoons the absurd gadgetry being sold to fearful Americans in the age of Code Orange alerts, or lambasts the ludicrous double-standards of airport searches and baggage prohibitions, neither the soldier nor his retinue of tools is held up to obvious ridicule. The scene does not embarrass the soldier or the audience the way some of the foregoing interviews do, in which amped-up infantrymen extol the rush of assassinating Iraqis while listening to rock music inside their helmets; then again, nor is the moment as patently sympathetic as later ones where veterans of the still-young war, many of them amputees, express their anger and disillusion at having been deployed and debilitated for no clear purpose. By contrast to all of this, the moment I am highlighting doesn't have any obvious editorial hook, beyond the implicit rue of showing the equipment by which unknown civilian lives are bound to be disrupted, intruded upon, or worse. The bare-faced image of a battle-ready soldier is as close as Fahrenheit 9/11 ever gets to unpolluted, uncouched, unsalacious (but still depressing) fact. Not surprisingly, it's a short scene, and not one the film asks you to remember; Moore includes the image, but isn't sure what to do with it.

I remember the scene because of the crowbar, and because I wondered if, similarly armed, Michael Moore would just march up to the White House, splinter the front doors, and haul the Commander-in-Chief right out of the Oval Office himself. As it is, Moore, our most comfortably familiar social agitator, exercises every impulse, resource, and behavior pattern we already associate with him and uses whatever means he can to annihilate any speck of awe or credulity his audience might feel toward our current administration. Interviews, documents, under-the-table footage, embedded photographers, ice cream trucks: Moore will grab whatever is at hand. His prankish wit and quippy indignation will no doubt keep endearing him to viewers impatient with more staid approaches to documentary cinema, or who prefer more diligent, self-directed methods for uncovering political agendas than the vicarious, thrill-ride conspiracy theories which Moore so relishes. These same stunts also endear him to people like me, who will frankly watch anything if it humiliates the image of our utterly humiliating president, if it discredits the profile of our deeply discreditable government and policies.

No question, Moore has hit on a winning formula, and after the Academy Award he won for Bowling for Columbine, not to mention a box-office haul unprecedented for a non-fiction film, Moore has absolutely no reason to change his m.o. Unless, of course, the different stakes and scope of the new picture demand a different or more sober approach. Bowling for Columbine, like almost all of Moore's work, drew reams of criticism, not just from NRA allegiants and political conservatives but from scrupulous, fact-oriented critics across the political spectrum, for occasionally embroidering the realities and episodes on which the film is based, and for barreling through a discursive and broad argument with such high-velocity aplomb that key distinctions and caveats got lost, and for making Moore himself so conspicuous and grand at the forefront of the picture that it almost served as an extended advertisement for his own brand of snarky baseball-cap activism (undergirded, of course, by deep pockets and a seemingly endless network of inroads, connections, and accomplices). A good deal of this criticism seemed fair, and it is occasionally downright embarrassing how reductive Moore can be in presenting the facts of a case, so superseding the notion of editorial bias as to seem flippant about genuine complexities and/or as ideologically motivated as his habitual targets in the political right and corporate élite.

At the same time, Bowling for Columbine plays as a highly personal essay on a unique problem of the American cultural imaginary, the paradox by which one of the "freest" societies on the globe is inveterately receptive to all kinds of social paranoias and hegemonically imposed fears—often culminating in the kinds of policy legislations, civil-liberty restrictions, and actual violence that give a film like Columbine its primary impetus and its air of moral gravity. When venturing such an argument about national temperaments and national prejudices, considerable leeway remains for concerted exaggeration, tone-setting illustration, and jaunty, opportunistic connections. The omnipresence of Moore himself within Bowling for Columbine's mise-en-scne—especially aggravating when he escorts children to KMart Headquarters on a diplomatic appeal but then immediately hogs the spotlight once their requests are approved—is nonetheless a constant and honest reminder that Columbine really is a personal film rendering personal hypotheses about a set of cultural symptoms.

Not so, or at least less so, when the subjects at hand are the conduct and shadowy infrastructure of an existing administration and the motivations for their involvement in a costly, inhuman, and ongoing martial conflict. At an auteurist level, Moore seems to understand this need for a shift in tone and approach—hence his uncharacteristic and thus much-ballyhooed decision to mostly absent himself from the second hour of Fahrenheit 9/11, as the purview of the movie expands and the fates of its participants and interview subjects grow darker. Oddly, while congratulating Moore for tactfully reducing his own role in the movie, many of Fahrenheit 9/11's staunchest supporters are simultaneously allowing him free-rein to assemble whatever argument he wishes—even the most loosely composed aggregate of "evidence" and circumstantial logic—as long as the film succeeds in stoking anti-Bush sentiment and, in the most optimistic prognoses, contributes to his downfall in the November elections.

This is a strange paradox: approving Moore's ostensible withdrawal into the background because of the seriousness of his topic, while affording him incredible liberty to editorialize, rhetoricize, and doctor the truth in a Clintonesque "I didn't precisely say..." fashion despite the seriousness of his topic. Moore himself is not one to dwell on paradoxes; once he's adopted a master narrative for his projects, he tends to slap it around wildly until he can see where it sticks, or at least looks like it's sticking. These tendencies make him the director he is, but they also bedevil the integrity of what he produces, a dilemma that is much more evident in Fahrenheit 9/11 than in Bowling for Columbine, because this time the intimations of authenticity and the archness of the tone are much more pronounced.

The first hour of Fahrenheit 9/11 maps out a longstanding network of secret alliances and dubious payoffs between the Bush and bin Laden families, though the exposition of these connections darts fleetly from past to present, across all kinds of contexts and varying levels of correlation. The sly mockery of Moore's narration and the often funny, intertextual, audience-flattering montage of gag reels, interpolated pop-media clips, and excerpted documents are all that jell the film together, even as it frays and quivers as an actual argument. Sad to say, the rhetorical structure Moore employs here is often just the same as that which he attacks Bush for using. A typically caustic set-piece in the middle of Fahrenheit 9/11 splices together clips of Bush and his cronies saying "al Qaeda" and "Saddam" often enough and in enough proximity to each other that eventually the connection seems naturalized and plausible. Having lived through recent years of media coverage, not to mention the exhaustive but fruitless subsequent attempts to document any such connection, I am more than happy to agree that this is exactly how the Bush team succeeded in conveying a link that didn't exist. At the same time, it is already proof of sloppy filmmaking that Moore can't capture the technique without supplying his own splices: why not include longer clips of the guilty-as-charged actually venturing the specious linkage in their own tortuous, unsubstantiated, lying way? And worse, rather than adopt that honest strategy, why opt instead for exactly the cynical guilt-by-association technique you are (rightly) critiquing Bush & Co. for devising?

I don't think that Moore's own assertions are nearly as fictitious as those of Bush, et al., and though the argument is circuitous, I disagree with commentators like Christopher Hitchens who suggest that none of Moore's multifarious points about Bush I, Bush II, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq add up to a single linking idea. (Hitchens himself has his own history of short-cut documentary approaches; he was the engine behind and key voice within the 2002 documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, where plausibly damning but unsubstantiated accounts of Kissinger's remarks and actions were superimposed over photographs of him in the Oval Office, as though the documentary nature of the image automatically corroborated the assertive quality of the argument.) Fahrenheit 9/11 is clear enough in imputing that the oil-slickened Bush clan have a long history of connections to the bin Laden family, who are also, lest we forget, the second-wealthiest clan in Saudi Arabia, with very close ties to the royal family. And Saudi Arabia, lest we forget (and the film does remind us of this), is a sizable share-holder in the U.S. economy writ large. Bashfully, Moore steers totally clear of the political, religious, and ideological bramble of Middle Eastern politics, an avoidance which by itself seriously compromises the depth of almost anything Moore has to say on the subject. Especially given the supreme tactical importance of our civil relations with Saudi Arabia and their monumentally uneasy co-existence with our continued support of Israel, it's hilariously nave when Moore attempts to conjure our shocked horror upon revealing that the Saudi embassy in the U.S. is protected by Secret Service. It's worse, uncontextualized to the point of misrepresentation, to imply as Fahrenheit 9/11 so often does that our government's ties to the Saudi regime are indistinguishable from the personal intimacies of the Bushes and bin Ladens themselves, or that the U.S. ever really had the option to sever ties with Saudi Arabia (i.e., the bin Ladens) altogether; more on that later.

And yet, the composite picture that emerges from the movie's seemingly disconnected tale of the Bushes and bin Ladens—at one moment the Taliban is visiting Texas under Bush's governorship; at another, we are having to invade Afghanistan to secure a pipeline deal on which the earlier visit was premised—is that the Bushes, i.e. America, or at least its patrician and corporate interests, are forced to preserve relations with the bin Ladens and to overlook even the most bald moral transgressions because political detente in the Middle East and the economic exchange of Saudi oil for American consumer products is held by both camps to be too sacred to sacrifice. Mind you, Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn't come out and disclaim this all at once; it is frequently too busy making fun of John Ashcroft for singing bad songs or citing Dragnet as a procedural guide for the interrogation of potentially state-affiliated terrorists. But the point is still clear: the reason Fahrenheit 9/11 attacks the military laziness and insufficient deployments in our war on Afghanistan despite the overall anti-war stance of the film—which Hitchens takes as a preeminent example of the film's hypocritical, narcissistic confusion—is that Moore is telling us the Bush administration was forced to conduct a (justified) military operation in Afghanistan but also forced to conduct this war such that we wouldn't win it, to stave off the diplomatic mess of capturing, torturing, and sentencing to death a scion of a royal family that we are forced by history and circumstance to placate.

The argument, essentially, is about sincerity: Moore is not impugning the Bush administration for bombing Afghanistan (nothing in the film suggests such an argument), but he is impugning them for impersonating a campaign that was guaranteed not to achieve its stated purpose; that was largely engineered to satisfy domestic clamor for retribution; and that almost certainly provided an easy pretext for shifting battle initiatives over to Iraq. The same logic, indirect but still articulate, governs the film's survey of Homeland Security policies, another point on which Hitchens indicts the film for incoherence. Moore's actual feelings about the curtailing of civil liberties and freedoms of motion in the aftermath of terrorism are not perfectly clear, but the actual implementation of these measures—which emphasize a broad elimination of all threats while secretly proliferating the idea of those threats; which allow passengers onto planes with cigarette lighters and other combustibles while raiding their bags for less incendiary material; which draw praise to the Bush administration for its heroic, holistic resistance of terrorism while entire coastlines go unpoliced, understaffed, and unprotected—are the actual (and fair) targets of his ire.

It is all too easy to fall hook, line, and sinker for Moore's gleeful parodies, his devilish flair for catching our most polished leaders in their most charmless candid moments, and his opportunistic enlistment of available bogeymen. The cameo appearance by Kenneth Lay, disgraced chairman of Enron, is so tangential and instantly disposed-of that it's perfectly of a piece with the Bush team's own scare tactics and slippery iconographies; the needless fly-by on Ricky Martin and cruel send-up of Britney Spears radiate an audience-pandering fascination with celebs far more than they register actual points. At the same time, the eclectic montages and conspiracy-minded garrulity of Moore's films make them easy to underestimate, and are guaranteed to frustrate cultural mandarins who look to them for footnoted, somber dissertations instead of affective cases. And at moments, his films are truly inspired. The dual gambits of Moore attempting to persuade members of Congress to enlist their children in the war they helped declare and of reciting the Patriot Act from an ice-cream truck outside the Capitol—a scene further abetted by Congressman John Conyers, Jr.'s (D) on-camera admission that much legislation passed by Congress goes unread by the members—are all delicious examples of Moore's raffish, man-on-the-street wit, perfectly realized. The force of these moments lies not in the scope of revelation—does anyone think all those Bills do get read, or that people in Congress actually do see their own children and our children the same way?—but in the magic of extracted confession, because who ever expects our legislators to admit these obvious but fiercely-concealed truths?

Equally indelible is Moore's continuing relationship with Lila Lipscomb, a Flint, Michigan, resident who has the rare virtue in a Michael Moore movie of inhabiting different sides of his ideological worldview at different times. When we first meet Lila, she serves as an example of a citizen who benefitted from publicly funded work-training programs and now spends her own professional life trying to coach the young and disenfranchised to find opportunities for improving their own fortunes. On a dime, though, Moore turns the tables on her, as she proudly advocates the U.S. military as a premier chance for local youths to "see the world," earn an income, and hopefully stash away money toward a college education. Lila's own son and daughter join the service and are deployed to Iraq, and one of the two is killed in a helicopter crash outside Karbala. The cruel irony of Lila's devastation would seem to be augmented by the film, which had cast such a skeptical eye on her flag-waving, enlistment-happy patriotism, except that Moore is untypically generous in allowing Lila Lipscomb to grieve her son and take honest stock of why he died as he did—and Lila Lipscomb herself is very brave in allowing her own profound change of heart and self-critique to be recorded on film and be shared with the world as a cautionary tale of nave national pride that is harshly soured by the needless death of a child.

These scenes are all immensely to the credit of Fahrenheit 9/11, which frequently enough succeeds in its balance of jaunty provocation, earnest heartache, and riled-up fury against a callous, immoral administration. But we come back to a term I invoked before: sincerity, a fundamental attribute which Moore finds lacking in Bush, in his reckless pursuit of money, in his unfounded plans for combat, and in his decision to respond to mounting death tolls with a revitalized commitment to battle, insulated as he is by aristocratic privilege and by popular-media airbrushing which his own administration helps to foster. It is not hard to accuse Bush of arrogance, ignorance, insensitivity, largesse, and incompetence, but as Fahrenheit 9/11 continues to make these allegations, it successively whets our appetite for an alternative. Similarly, as the story of Lila Lipscomb increasingly grounds the movie in an authentic dimension of human pain and dismayed citizenship, the expediency and flippancy of so many preceding moments in Fahrenheit 9/11 start to curdle in the memory.

It would seem, by the end of the film, and looking honestly at the principles of its construction and the methodologies of its argument, that Michael Moore is exactly the Javert that Bush deserves—desperate to beat him at his own game, and possibly equipped to do so, though grossly unaware of how much the two men have in common. Michael Moore has a kind of sincerity: he is dead-set on realizing his own political, largely class-based ideals, just as Bush is wedded to his equal but opposite agenda. Neither view is particularly encompassing, and as the minutes tick by, it becomes clear that one thing Fahrenheit 9/11 is missing is an actual program for change. Stripped of political complexity, determined to popularize a basic sentiment rather than disseminate a refined position, Moore provides us with exactly two strategies for change: vote against Bush and, as advertised in the end credits, "Do Something: Visit www.MichaelMoore.com". What "something" does Michael Moore want us to do? How are his own scrappy interventions or sarcastic put-downs of dinosaur politicians really an adequate response to the debasements he wishes to profile? What will change in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, in military-recruitment practices, in social inequality, once Bush is out of office? It is interesting and notable that in a film so recently re-edited as to include footage from the ongoing September 11 Comission hearings, there is not a single image of John Kerry. (Indeed, Moore was a committed and highly visible supporter of Wesley Clark's candidacy.) It is not incumbent on documentary films, even less on personal-essay films, to offer a pragmatic platform of action, and yet Moore casts a wide net over a set of problems that he blames on one individual, without any implied sense that the problems are institutionalized, or that his own brand of splice-and-paste aesthetics and bottom-line polemics could be part and parcel of why the American electorate is so lacking in media savvy and so vulnerable to dictatorial hegemony.

Scoring footage of mysterious political events to pop songs by the Go-Go's, partially to obscure the inadequacy of the implied message (I hate Bush as much as anyone does, but no, I do not think a Presidential vacation is a "vacation" in the popular sense), is not a way to raise the popular discourse around politics. Citing Dragnet as an exemplar of investigative procedures, and thus consuming film-time that could have been devoted to exactly what kinds of questions could have been, should have been, or indeed were asked of the bin Laden family members whom the White House skirted out of the U.S. is a deliriously wrong-headed and obfuscatory decision. Imaging Saddam Hussein's rule over Iraq as a time when children flew kites, weddings were celebrated, and Hussein himself danced a frequent jig in the town squares of Baghdad is imprecise to the point of lunacy, especially when the film's seminal points about mercenary American interests in Iraq and the inadequacy of Bush's case for war would still stand strong without any such laundering of Iraqi political history. Ridiculing the comparative global stature of countries like Morocco and Iceland, and implicitly characterizing them as republics of spider monkeys and folk dancers respectively, does not improve American habits of disdain for other nations in any clear way. And though impassioned partisans of every stripe can debate what President Bush could or could not have personally achieved in the seven minutes after discovering the World Trade Center was under attack, the debate is not further clarified by Moore's incredibly juvenile, incredibly unnecessary insertion of faux-thoughts into the muted image of Bush sitting stunned in a Florida classroom. Every bit of voice-over Moore supplies in this sequence is a cheapening of and a distraction from the germane issues raised by this incident, just as his extended focus on these seven minutes is a cheapening of and a distraction from the ensuing two and a half years of political machination that could profit more from careful scrutiny and on-screen inquiry. Fahrenheit 9/11 is good enough to make you crave a solution, a leader, or at least a moral example; it is also craven and misguided enough, more than once, to remind you of just how surely Michael Moore falls short of the gold standard in all three categories.

Will the film be popular? I'm sure it will, or at least popularly debated in a love-it-hate-it way, la The Passion of the Christ. As with the Gibson film, the massive cultural focus on this movie is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is exciting to see so much debate and concerted attention on a movie; most years come and go without a single movie that ignites any political or ideological sparks, and we've already had two supernovas in six months. At the same time, as with The Passion of the Christ, it is hard and almost irrelevant to view Fahrenheit 9/11 as a film, minus its political contexts. Maybe this is at should be: I am happiest with Fahrenheit 9/11 when I don't hold it to the standards of the best documentaries, even overtly political ones like the invaluable Harlan County, U.S.A. The Moore film is essentially a crowbar for prying Bush out of his throne, and since it has clearly been designed, assembled, and marketed as precisely that, plenty of people who share its impulses will deny that there's any reason (if, in fact, there is any way) to hold the film up to regular artistic appraisal. But I must say that worries me: it smacks of passing Congressional bills that haven't been read, of rallying behind a war built on specious foundations, of electing a president who hasn't been elected. The movie is so easy to take, especially if you share its political inclinations, and enough of its set-pieces are stirring and inspiring and appropriately harrowing, that it's easy to imagine giving Moore a free pass on his contradictions, his hypocrisies, his glibness, his deficient sincerity.

In its design for the market, Fahrenheit 9/11 reminds me a good deal of films like American Beauty, which sport not one but two messages that its audience is dying to hear. In the Mendes film's case: 1) that modern suburban life really is dispiriting and dehumanizing, and so we (men) are justified in saying to hell with it and following our most adolescent impulses; and 2) that all of this alienation and regression and erotomania and misogyny and substance-consumption and slicked-up aestheticism is okay, because it's the path to redemptive contentment, when we look down from the sky and decide we wouldn't have changed a single thing. Fahrenheit 9/11's one-two punch is easier to crystallize, because Moore doesn't try to hide his ideas, even when they're in tension with each other: 1) our unelected president is a ghoulish monster who needs to be deposed; and 2) any old strategy for deposing him, no matter what compromises or streamlinings or self-defenses are involved, is ultimately okay. Don't worry if your movie never addresses the real reason why all U.S. governments are guaranteed of going soft on the Saudi regime—it's because you, American middle-class consumers, can't stop buying SUVs and sports cars until every kid in the family has one. As a child of Flint, Michigan, Moore is unlikely to venture a point like this about the necessity of bourgeois self-restraint, especially as regards our automotive appetites, and true to form, he doesn't. Bush has done more than enough to deserve the piata treatment he gets here; he could get whacked with a bat every day from now until forever, and I wouldn't mind, but I also wouldn't confuse that plan with a prophetic vision of American justice or a sophisticated means of critiquing the system (including the voters, which includes the system's audience) that allowed Bush to advance so far.

There's one last implement in the toolkit shared by Fahrenheit 9/11's most unquestioning supporters, which is the question of circulation and the pragmatics of cultural visibility. And it goes like this: yes, Michael Moore could make a more sedate or properly investigative movie; yes, he could be honest about the very real complicity of all levels of American culture in preserving its government's morally untenable alliances; yes, he could further curb the pot-shots and sight-gags and imbue the movie with more reflection, investigation, and complication...but who, after all, would go to it? And would it even, at that point, be a Michael Moore movie? The answer is, Probably not, and so again, I'm in partial sympathy with a film that may have figured out a way to instill just enough political mobilization in its middle-class audience so as to vote out the President and then let the professionals take it from there. But by the same token that Michael Moore, as a person and as a brand-name, allows his documentary to reach farther and accomplish more than any other non-fiction filmmaker, he also enjoys more access, more funding, and a more hands-off distribution deal than any other documentarian in the history of the movies. Should the pragmatic fact of his massive, built-in audience be an excuse for a 50/50 ratio of savvy argumentation and sloppy obfuscation? Or isn't it fair to say that after Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men, he could have made any movie he wanted, working from an almost unfathomable array of materials—look at all the secret footage and sensitive paperwork he's got on his hands in Fahrenheit 9/11, including George W. Bush's unexpurgated military record—and he could have gotten away with anything...even the toned-down, speaks-for-itself truth? Why didn't he do that? That would have been a radical gesture, for him and for his medium, and in its absence, Fahrenheit 9/11 remains a stirring but self-contradictory movie, a valuable time capsule as well as a supercilious party trick, a once-in-a-lifetime phenom as well as a missed opportunity. B


Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'or (Best Picture); FIPRESCI Prize
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Documentary Feature
National Board of Review: Freedom of Expression Award

Permalink Home 2004 ABC Blog E-Mail