(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
Perhaps the most blistering cinematic attack ever directed at an incumbent president, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 lays into George W. Bush with a fierceness that the director’s ardent fans will surely relish. For its furious two hours, the film – being released by Harvey Weinstein’s Fellowship Adventure Group after Disney refused to let Weinstein’s Miramax do the deed – details with fervent outrage the lies, crimes, and shady dealings that the current administration has supposedly perpetrated in order to satiate its alleged greed and hunger for power. Moore is even less interested in traditional reportorial evenhandedness than in his previous Roger & Me and Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine; his is a one-sided polemic that never attempts to mask its fury at W. and his close allies. Fair and balanced, as Fox News might say, this is not.
Moore’s beef is obviously with Bush, and he works hard to turn the former Texas businessman into a villain on a par with Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West. The film’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that Bush stole the 2000 election; proceeded to take an extended vacation after the inauguration; used 9/11 to create an atmosphere of fear and panic that would allow him to rescind basic American freedoms (via the Patriot Act) and wage wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) driven by financial agendas; and deceived the American public in order to protect his Saudi business cohorts and his family’s sizeable stake in oil and military industries. It’s a critique of the administration that, particularly in its early, piercing section about the Bush family’s close ties to the Saudi royal family, acutely details this administration’s continuation of our country’s shameful buddy-buddy relationship with a country that brazenly cultivates, harbors, and financially supports anti-American terrorism. Yet like a debater who articulates his point by yelling non-stop until his opponent merely acquiesces out of exhaustion, Moore’s vitriol is so all-consuming that the director, as in Columbine, soon begins stringing together semi-related facts – or using no facts at all – in order to make points.
After being informed that planes had struck the WTC on 9/11, Moore shows Bush continuing his photo op meeting with a class of school children, staring off into space with a look of confused, shocked blankness. The narration attempts humorous insight by attempting to guess what the president was thinking – was he pondering his connections to the bin Ladens and Saudis, or maybe about how he should have been working harder in the months leading up to the attacks? Moore elicits a few easy chuckles simply through the goofiness of Bush’s on-camera persona, but the problem with the scene – as well as with most of the film – is that Moore has no idea what Bush might have been thinking, and merely backs up his glib accusations about Bush corruption and incompetence with mounds of conjecture and hearsay from a gaggle of likeminded talking heads (including House of Bush, House of Saud author Carl Unger) but with little persuasive proof.
The last third of the film finds Moore concentrating on the horrors of combat in Iraq and, more poignantly, the economic hardships that have driven many young, poor Americans into the military. In the person of Lila Lipscomb, a resident of the director’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, Moore finds a melodramatic vehicle for his grief and rage at the war, as Lipscomb painfully mourns her child’s death for a cause she now believes is unjust. The director’s frustrating disinterest in verifiable specifics when agreeable sound bites are available, however, is all-too-pervasive. Baffled by the quick passage of the Patriot Act, Moore asks a congressman how it could have been agreed upon so readily. The congressman’s answer – “We don’t read most [of the bills]” – is the only (clearly insufficient) answer we’re given to the director’s question. Richard Clarke says American Special Forces didn’t get into Afghan territory where Osama might have been hiding until two months after military operations began, but Moore doesn’t follow-up with any supporting evidence. Like the random old woman who’s allowed to rant and rave about Halliburton during a superficial third act scene, Moore incessantly picks and chooses declarations that agree with his hypothesis without ever compellingly substantiating his film’s claims.
Although Moore uncharacteristically keeps himself largely off-camera, his presence is both the engine that drives Fahrenheit 9/11 and also, ultimately, its biggest hindrance. Moore’s stream-of-consciousness reasoning taps into Americans’ conspiracy-loving hearts, and those prone to distrust big government and big business will surely find much to enjoy in the filmmaker’s tirade. Still, there’s a disingenuous streak to his analysis that’s amplified by his dogged refusal to posit any alternatives. Terror alerts and the administration’s talk of worldwide terror networks are, according to Moore, just part of a carefully orchestrated government strategy to keep us scared, docile, and thus willing to go along with anything and everything. Yet by not even conceding that there are real, dangerous threats posed to our country by Islamic militants – and by dubiously juxtaposing Rumsfeld and Cheney’s talk of war with a supremely dishonest portrayal of pre-war Iraq as a place where women smile happily and children run along the water flying kites and laughing– the film’s harangue willingly avoids any concession that maybe, just maybe, there is good reason to be somewhat frightened by our enemies.
“I guess you can probably see where this is going,” Moore says while constructing an argument made out of claims concerning Halliburton, a visiting Taliban bigwig, the U.S.S. Cole, and Enron. From the sounds of my fellow moviegoers, who regularly recited key lines from the film just before they were said on-screen, it’s clear that, at least with regards to his supporters, Moore is correct. But given that the film’s goal is to help oust Bush in this November’s election, one has to wonder if a fiery, uncompromising sermon to the choir is the wisest means to Moore’s ends.